An army was at the gates of Clusium.
It was strange, thought Marcus, the things you could get used to. Oh, there had been alarm, a great outcry, when the Gauls had appeared, riding out of the east—and it was not only that they never would have expected Gauls to come from the east. But Gauls the invaders were, pale giants with hair like flame itself, but speaking Umbrian as nicely as you please. It was all very strange, the language included.
There had been a few nightmarish days: the world turned upside-down, but then righted again when it seemed that the Gauls did not intend to besiege them immediately. No, the Gauls wanted to talk.
So here they were, just outside the city, treating with the Gauls, and here was Marcus, leaning on his borrowed spear, shifting his weight from foot to foot. It was a warm day, one of the bright clear days of late spring, the end of the month of Cabreas, and he wished more than anything that the day—the season—the fate of Clusium—had not been given over to this.
"Take this," old Cneve had said, when he had handed Marcus the spear yesterday. "A strapping young lad like you will look impressive holding this." He chuckled. "Just stand there and try to look like you know which end you stab the enemy with."
And so Marcus had gritted his teeth and taken the spear, because he could not very well refuse, even though he was in truth a farmer who knew nothing of war, even though they only wanted him now because he could do something for them, just because he was tall, because he looked like he could be a fighter. He was not entirely sure that this was better than being hated.
He tightened his hands on the spear-shaft and hoped he looked like a seasoned warrior. A threat. A menace. Probably he looked like no such thing. He felt like a child, dressing up, pretending. The feeling was not helped by the fact that he was indeed wearing Cneve's tabenna; Cneve's wife had clucked disapprovingly at the state of Marcus' own clothes when he had come for the spear. He would shame them all looking like that, she said; just because he was only a farmer did not mean he had to look like one. He could not wear his threadbare tunic and be part of the delegation, she had said, and Marcus had to admit that she was right.
Marcus was dressed now in clothing much finer than he himself had ever owned, than he had ever touched: a richly-hued tabenna, woven in a plaid of blues and golds with an elaborate fringed border, all of it folded and draped in the most formal style with the ends hanging down his back. And if the Gauls noticed that he had none of the fine jewelry one might expect to see with it, and that the tunic underneath was rather plain... well, no one seemed to be paying any attention to him. He was only a spearman, after all.
"You cannot simply expect us to give you land," Larth Tlesnasa was saying to the Gaulish chieftains. Or so Marcus thought he was saying, at any rate; Marcus' own command of Umbrian was patchy, and it had been a few years since he had heard it. From the tone of Larth's voice, this sounded like a point he had been trying to make all morning.
Marcus shifted his weight to his other foot, once again, and found that he was suddenly seized with the urge to yawn.
No, he told himself. Don't think about that. For if he started thinking about yawning, or the cramp in his calf, or the itch just under his shoulder, how could the Gauls reckon the Clusines a serious foe when Marcus—finally representing his home—could not even stand up straight and behave?
The man who seemed to be the most important of the Gaulish chiefs—Brennos, someone had told Marcus—was a huge man, battle-worn, and his scarred face curved in what Marcus guessed was supposed to be a smile. "Ah, but we have explained this," the man said, and his booming voice carried even over to where Marcus was standing. "We come as friends."
"Friends, with weapons like that?" retorted Larth. "It is a poor sort of friend who comes to your house demanding half of your rooms! Perhaps that is friendship in your homeland, but it is not the way of things here."
Brennos sounded almost appalled, like a cheating horse-trader when one asks to see his beasts' teeth. "Demands? Requests!"
Marcus could not help it. He sighed.
Avile, standing next to him, jabbed the hilt of his dagger into Marcus' ribs. Avile had not picked a true fight with him in a few years, not since Marcus had grown taller than him, but that did not prevent him from being cruel at every opportunity.
"Quiet!" Avile hissed. "It's a wonder they wanted you here at all."
He dropped his gaze to the woodgrain of the spear planted before him, studying the way his own hands wrapped around it; he would not give Avile the satisfaction of a reply. He already knew there would be nothing that would stop the man, and if he said anything in return it would only be worse for him.
All at once he saw, at a distance and out of focus, movement on the far side of the negotiators; it seemed there was something worth noticing about the Gaulish envoy after all.
Marcus looked up, and... one of the Gauls was smiling at him.
He was a man Marcus had noticed at the very beginning of the morning's talks, a young man of about his own age. One could hardly avoid noticing him, Marcus thought, for though the man was as pale as any of his kinsmen, he was a good head shorter, and the contrast was startling. The man had a sharp, pointed face, strange and intriguing, clean-shaven and framed by long light hair that fell down past his jaw to his shoulders; a bit of his hair was braided at the front. He had even better clothing than the borrowed tabenna, Marcus noted enviously, with blue-checked trousers and a crimson cloak, fastened with a shining brooch. The torc about his neck shone golden, surrounded by other bright jewels; truly he must have been one of their princes.
The Gaul's whole body suggested boredom, the very sort Marcus had been trying not to express. It seemed that this man too was here to bear weapons, for he stood with a huge oval shield, a bizarrely-shaped thing that was nearly the height of him, painted in red and black with a snarling hound at the center. He had a hand wrapped lazily about the top of it, and even that, which ought to have been normal, was strange: twisting ink-lines of blue spread across the back of his hand, swirling up to disappear under his sleeve. His arm was ringed with still more bracelets, gold and silver both. His other hand, likewise inked, was draped on the hilt of his sword, which looked almost too long for him, longer than any sword Marcus had seen. Despite this, the man did not look battle-ready, he only looked... tired. They had been standing here all day; of course the Gauls were weary as well.
But the Gaul was still smiling. At him. It was not a mean smile, not the sort an enemy or a hated bully would turn on you, taking pleasure in your misfortune—no, it was almost a friendly thing. We know how it is, the two of us, eh? the smile seemed to be saying, asking Marcus to confide in him. To trust him.
The man's eyes sparkled bright—blue? grey?—and abruptly Marcus realized he had been staring. The grin grew wider, and Marcus went hot all over.
No. He shouldn't. This was the enemy, no matter how inviting his gaze. They were here to invade. They had come for war.
Let the man smile however much he liked. Marcus wanted no part of it.
"We must stop for the day," Larth said. "I am hungry."
Brennos nodded briskly. "I as well."
Marcus waited, paused on an indrawn breath, to see what would happen. Would Larth, perhaps, invite Brennos and the other chieftains to his home? Perhaps with wine flowing, with music playing, they would be in a mood to be reasonable, perhaps then they would decide to just leave—
But Larth turned away, saying nothing.
He should not have expected anything different. Bringing them into the city was a gesture akin to surrender, and Clusium could not afford to appear weak. He was no warrior, no ambassador, but even Marcus knew that much.
The Gaulish envoy began to break up, murmuring among themselves in their own language, as they headed toward their camp. The man who had smiled at Marcus was saying something to his fellows, then heading for the chieftains themselves before being lost in the swell of the crowd. He did not look back.
There was no invitation for Marcus either. He had known there would not be one, even had there been dinner parties to attend; the pretense that he was important only extended as far as the negotiations. He doubted there were parties tonight, what with there being an army at the gates. Still, the Gauls would attack if they chose. It frightened him to think he was already becoming accustomed to their presence, after only a few days. The invasion was now a thing that had to be accommodated, and Marcus did not like the thought of that.
Avile sneered at him—his face was always a sneer—as he followed the rest of the men back toward the city itself. "See you tomorrow, Marcus. Assuming they want you back. Try not to make an idiot of yourself again."
After him came a long line of men, and in the middle of them was Cneve, far enough away that he likely hadn't heard Avile. Marcus wondered what Cneve would have done if he'd had.
Mutely, Marcus held out the spear. If Cneve wanted his things back, wanted him not to come again, they could at least do this with a minimum of embarrassment.
But Cneve lifted a hand and shook his head. "Don't you think you'll need that for tomorrow?"
At least they still wanted him there. It counted for something.
Marcus could go into the city; the gates were still open while Larth's retinue was passing back through them. He could go see Caile, who at this hour of the day had likely finished painting all the pots he was going to. They could relax, drink together. Surely spending the evening with his only friend would help ward off the heavy weight of terror on him, the fear of the Gauls—
Then he remembered that Caile had gotten married, only last month. Caile and his new wife Seianti were busy now. They would have no time for him. He wondered why he so often forgot that. Caile was part of the life of the city now, in a way that Marcus... wasn't. Couldn't be. Oh, if Marcus married, if he gave up the farming life, traded it for a merchant's account books and moved inside Clusium proper—no, he thought. Even that wouldn't work. They would still look at him as he walked and they would say, there went Marcus, Marcus that damned Roman's son, and they would spit on the dirt when he passed them.
Even his name marked him out. Marcus, the other children had always called him, in mocking fake-Latin accents that sounded nothing like his memories of his father's voice—only Marcus and never Marce. When he was seven, with all the stubbornness a child could have, he had declared that, very well, his name would be Marcus. He had thought it would make them stop, but they only redoubled their efforts.
It was his name now.
He would go home, then. There was nothing for him here.
Marcus pivoted around his spear, using the butt end as a makeshift walking-stick, and started out on the long track toward the farm. The ground was rutted from years upon years of wagons and ox-carts, the dirt packed hard under his feet. The road was a winding track downhill, then up again through grass-green valley. On the ridges—not that any of the hills were sharp enough to be properly called so—he could make out, in the sunlight, the lines and squares of others' farms: rows of grapevine, bright fields of wheat and barley, pastured horses and pigs.
The walk was long, but he found that he liked it. Every step took him away from the Gauls, massing under the city, a dark and angry blight on the walls. In this direction, coming home, he could not see them at all. He could almost pretend they had not come, that today was as any other day and he only had to worry about, oh, Avile saying something hurtful. He remembered the way the Gaulish man had looked at him, as if he thought he could know him, could presume to become acquainted with him, just as the whole stinking lot of them could presume to live upon his land, the land of Marcus' ancestors—
Half his ancestors, he thought, ruefully, and suddenly his eyes stung and his face burned with a feeling he refused to put a name to.
Eventually, having turned down the smallest and least-worn trail, where grass threatened the edges of the dirt, he crested the last hill and stopped, leaning on the spear, the farm spread out in the valley beneath him. It was not the finest farm in Clusium, he knew; the house was small, not built up with great courtyards in the opulent style of the rich. In fact, the main house was little better than the thatched hut that the slaves had, not that they could afford more than a handful of those either. But the earth was rich, their harvests plentiful for years, and there was always enough grass for the animals to graze in. From afar he could see one of the herders trying to coax the flock of sheep along to the nearer pasture.
His mother was inside, weaving, and she rose from her loom as Marcus' spear clattered to its rest by the door.
"Oh!" she cried, her hand to her chest, clutching the folds of her chiton. "Marce, dear, you gave me such a fright." His mother had never called him Marcus.
He smiled. "It's only me, Mother." But then he thought of why she might have feared him, picturing the Gaulish spearmen at their door, and his smile faded.
But at least his mother did not seem to notice. She was stepping forward, raising her arms to lay her hands on his shoulders, then holding him at arms' length, looking at him up and down.
"I had not seen you before you left this morning," she said, and there was a small smile on her face, her head held high. "Truly, Marce, you look very fine today." And she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, the way she always did.
Marcus squirmed a little; he was nineteen, not a child any longer, certainly. "It is Cneve's tabenna."
She shook her head. "No, no, Marce, it is you. You look very well." And then she bit her lip and looked away, stepping back. "I wish— I wish your father could have seen you. He would have been proud of you."
He hardly remembered his father. Everything he knew was someone else's memory—your father was this, your father was that, your father was an idiot and only the gods knew why your mother fell in love with him when she could have married a rich man, an Etruscan, and done well for herself. That last one, he had heard rather often.
"If you say so."
Over on the table there was a little wine left in the wine-bowl, mostly the lees, but he dipped a cup anyway; they could not afford to be wasteful. He poured out a libation, drank and tried not to grimace.
"So," said his mother, sitting down, with that avid look on her face that meant he was not getting out of this, "tell me of the talks."
He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, careful not to stain his borrowed clothing. "I am afraid there is not much to tell. There were Gauls. They talked, or they tried to. No one said very much useful. Their leader—Brennos, Cneve told me—he is fierce, but now he is pretending to be nice, to want to come to a peaceful solution. I do not know if he thinks we are stupid, but from his words, he sounds very much the warrior, playing at being an envoy."
She frowned. "His words? But how did you understand him?"
It was then that he remembered that she had not gone to the city, and likely had not seen the men for herself. They could not be seen from here, of course. And if she had not seen them, she had not heard about who they were. "They spoke Umbrian. I think they are from Umbria, somehow. Or near Umbria. But they are definitely Gauls, from the way they look. They're as tall as I am!" Except the short one, but being as men came in all heights Marcus supposed some of them had to be short, even Gauls.
"Curious." His mother pursed her lips. "Gauls from Umbria. I don't— oh."
"You are too young to remember properly, I think," she said, and Marcus gritted his teeth, for surely he was old enough now that he could remember something, "but ten years ago or so there was word through Umbria that a band of Gauls had settled in Picenum, on the coast. Perhaps it is those men who have come here."
"Perhaps," he agreed. "How fares the farm today?"
She gave him a narrow-eyed look. She was older, he noticed, suddenly, and her hair was graying at her temples. Had it always been that gray? When had she grown old?
"Marce," she began, reaching out for his hand, "I know it is a frightening thing—"
"I am not frightened, Mother!" Though even as he said it, he knew it was a lie; his stomach twisted unpleasantly with everything he had been trying not to think about.
She sighed. "Very well, then, you are not. But we cannot think that the Gauls will go away if we only pretend they are not here."
What was he supposed to do? They could not fend off an army, if the Gauls decided they wanted Clusium, if the Gauls wanted the farm. They were not even within walls. They were relying only on the goodwill of Brennos, and who knew how far that would stretch? In a month, they could all be dead.
"And what would you have me do?"
She gathered her himation up about her shoulders. "You are with the delegation. Talk to the Gauls. Learn about them. Make them see reason. If they can be persuaded that we are their friends, perhaps they will be kind."
Friends? Ha. Never. "I do not think so."
She went out into the dusk to mind the horses, and Marcus stood a long while, eating cold, stale bread with a bit of honey on it, alone.
Still, a very small part of his mind said, perhaps they did not mean them as much harm as all that. If they had wanted to attack surely they could have done so without delay—
No. They were the enemy.
He was spared having to talk to them himself, as shortly thereafter, Clusium's gates opened, and Larth and the rest came out. He would have known that even had Avile not elbowed him in the side to announce his presence.
"Back for another day, hey, Marcus?" There was nothing impolite about the words, but the way he said them could make anything sound impolite. "You know," he said, in an almost conversational tone, "if you're bored I can talk to Larth and have you replaced. It's not like you're of any use here. No one needs you for anything. Might as well leave."
He could go home, Marcus thought, with instant, awful relief. He wouldn't have to deal with any of it. But it would still be happening, and then he wouldn't know what was going on until the market-day, assuming Clusium was not besieged by then—no one was going to come from the city to talk to him, after all. This was horrible, but his mother had been right. It was better to know what was to come.
Marcus smiled tightly. "I'll be fine, thank you."
Avile's glare was dark. "See that you are."
The talks started off even more ill than they had ended; Brennos smiled companionably and said what was surely the most appalling thing Marcus could have ever imagined:
"Perhaps you could sell us some land?"
Larth blanched, and even Avile struggled not to make a face. Marcus was sure his own expression was aghast. How could they think to buy land? It was the land of their ancestors, with their forefathers' own graves. It was for them, the descendants, to live there, to make their own grave-offerings, to visit them. One could not simply give that up to a stranger, to leave one's family's own bones behind. It was unthinkable.
"We would give you a good price," added Brennos, heedless of the reaction. Perhaps he thought the astonishment to be a kind of gratitude, that he had not simply offered to kill them all.
The man who had smiled yesterday, the short one, seemed to be taking in their shocked expressions, his eyes darting from face to face. He stepped forward and tapped one of the older men on the shoulder, saying something in words too soft to hear. That man promptly moved forward and whispered something to Brennos.
Brennos frowned and the avid look on his face disappeared. "Or not." For the first time he sounded uncertain.
"Not, I think," Larth agreed smoothly, although behind him Cneve and the others were still looking warily about, uncertain.
Marcus stared ahead and tried to think about nothing, for hours and hours more, as the sun rose in the sky. At least now they were quiet. Surely they were saying nothing appalling now.
Eventually they broke for the noon meal, and Marcus, dazed, looked up to see that everyone else was already heading toward the city. The rest of the Clusines were inside, though at least the gates were still open. He was alone. No. Not alone. The Gaul from before, the short one, was standing in front of him, his shield hoisted back over his shoulder. His jewelry sparkled golden in the sun.
"I greet you," he said, in very mannered Umbrian, as if everything about this were normal. And then he smiled, a brilliant flash of teeth, and something inside Marcus clenched up, rose and twisted in a way that was pleasant and awful at the same time. No.
With effort, Marcus stilled his face, and then tilted his head. That was enough of a greeting for the invaders.
"I am Esca," the man said, brightly, still speaking as if this were any ordinary conversation. "I am Cunoval's son." He indicated the direction of one of the chieftains, the one he had spoken to earlier. That explained, Marcus thought, why he was dressed so well; a chieftain's son likely had all manner of finery.
Why was he telling him this? It was none of Marcus' affair. Why should he care? He should not. It did not matter what his mother had said. He should not let himself care.
Marcus narrowed his eyes and tried to look unimpressed.
"Who are you?" continued this man Esca, undeterred. The question could have been an unkind interrogation, from another's lips, but from his it was all honest curiosity.
What was he to say? That he was a poor farmer, son of a dead, reviled Roman? Oh, that would please the envoy, to know just how highly the Clusines thought of the Gauls, that they would send someone as worthless as him. And besides, it was none of Esca's business.
He kept his mouth shut.
Esca stared at him, and Marcus could have sworn for an instant that there was a kind of sadness in the man's eyes. "If you will not tell me that, then," he said, and his tone was coaxing, wheedling, "then at least tell me what it was that offended your people about offering to buy land."
Marcus' stomach turned again at the thought of it. Someone at least ought to tell them why. "It is— it has been the land of our people. Generations are buried there. If we sell the land to another, then no one of the family will be there to visit the tombs, to make offerings to the dead. They will be forgotten in the life after this." It was a hard thing to say, with his poor Umbrian, but he thought he managed the words well enough.
Did he understand? Could a Gaul understand that? It seemed so, for Esca's eyes had gone wide and horrified.
"Oh," he said, very quietly. "I did not know it was a thing of your gods."
"I thought you should," Marcus returned, even as part of him was amazed that Esca did understand this much. How could he, the invader, understand anything? But he did.
Esca smiled again. "I thank you for telling me, Clusine."
A great strange feeling swelled over Marcus, then, like the river when it was to flood, like the scent of the air before a storm. He felt suddenly aware of possibilities, and terrified by them. He wanted to tell this Esca his name. He wanted to tell him everything about himself. It was ridiculous. Just because he was friendly, or wanted to be, did not mean Marcus owed him anything. But he wanted— he didn't know what he wanted.
Wordless, Marcus could only nod, and then he scrambled back inside, heading for the safety of the gates, but at the same time he knew that there was no way to hide his spirit within them as well.
But then he looked up, startled, as Brennos began again: "Back on the subject of buying land—"
Marcus tried not to wince. He did not succeed, and Avile glared at him again.
"Yes?" asked Larth, with the stony set of his face making it very clear that yes was not the right answer.
"I misspoke, earlier," came Brennos' reply. He sounded smooth, diplomatic, not the hardened warrior Marcus could see in his face. "I meant, if there were land not in use, land belonging to no one—it is that land that would interest us. We mean no offense to your gods and would not disturb your dead."
Larth's face creased in a smile. "So, you have learned something. Well. That is different. We shall have to think about what land there is, and whether that would suit all of us."
Esca had— he had told Brennos. And Larth was smiling. At the invaders. Marcus stared stupidly at the negotiators. How could this have happened?
The talks for the rest of the day were almost good-natured. Almost. It was still not a pleasant thing, to think of the Gauls being here, for ever after, but if they were to stay at least no one would have to die for it. They might reach an understanding.
As everyone else was leaving, Esca once again pushed forward, ignoring the curious stares of the Clusines. Esca himself looked pleased, lit from within by some sort of delight. Oh, he was still fierce; there was no denying that he was armed with his fine sword, his strange shield. But there was a friendliness in his stance, almost an aggressive friendliness, as if he wanted very badly to be liked.
And Marcus... could not help but like him. He hated himself for it, but when Esca smiled at him again, he smiled back.
And how will you like him when that sword of his is red with the blood of your family? How will you like him then, eh?
He could not answer that. But he could not stop the smile on his face, the way he could not have stopped himself from yawning yesterday. The one thing was just as unavoidable as the other.
"I wanted to thank you again," said Esca, in an undertone. "For letting me know. You were very kind."
Marcus shifted his weight, awkwardly. He wanted to look away, but he was trapped in Esca's bright-eyed, intent gaze. At the same time, too, he wanted to keep looking, to look at him and never stop.
"It was nothing."
"No? But you did a fine thing. Should I not praise you?" Another smile. "Why do you dismiss it so quickly, Clusine?"
I don't want to like you. Marcus bit his lip.
Esca held his gaze for a moment longer, then he nodded once, sharply, as if Marcus had indeed spoken some answer aloud. Then he slung his shield over his shoulder, turned, and headed toward the Gaulish encampment.
Marcus watched him walk away, his mind empty of everything but the sight of the man, the sound of him, spiraling down into Marcus' own loathing. Only he himself, Marcus thought, could do such a thing, could even entertain the idea of enjoying the enemy's company. A proper Clusine would never think this. Nor would a Roman. No, the failing must be his own, and not the fault of his parentage. It must be some unique flaw that only he possessed—
He had no idea anyone was next to him until someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was a light tap, and that ruled out Avile. Startled, he turned to find Cneve peering up at him, face furrowed and stern.
"Be careful, Marcus."
An instant denial rose to his lips, escaping his mouth before he could even think about the words. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Cneve's glare only intensified. "You know perfectly well. Don't be too friendly with him. I'm warning you."
Marcus thought he heard Avile snicker as Cneve walked away. He couldn't even summon up embarrassment. Cneve was right. Esca was— Esca was— no one he should even be thinking about. Damn him.
"I'm going home," he said, to no one in particular. He kept his head down and focused on the pace of the journey, one foot in front of the other, and again, and again. When his mind drifted away, he snapped his head up to stare at the gleaming spearpoint, and he wondered what it might look like, blooded.
Friendship was a bad idea. It was the worst idea. Knowing that did not prevent him from desiring it.
Perhaps he was ill. Yes, perhaps that was it.
He lay awake, twisted up in the blankets, for far longer than he ought to if he wanted to be at the city gates before the negotiations begin again. Outside, a rooster crowed, and from inside the house Marcus began to hear the signs of life, the slaves up and moving about.
If he was ill, why, he would not have to go to the negotiations. Surely they would not want him today. He would not have to watch Avile smirking at him for having dared to behave toward a Gaul in a manner that was anything other than hostile. He would not have to disappoint Cneve. And, of course, he would not have to see Esca. It was better that way. This way he would not, could not trick himself somehow into being even friendlier with the man. Esca probably wouldn't even notice, Marcus thought, and he punched the mattress with one hand. Esca would never even miss him. He was certainly not needed for the negotiations. It would be better that way. Besides, it was not that he wanted Esca to notice him.
He felt no better.
Eventually, of course, when it was long past sunrise, his mother came looking for him.
"Marce," she said, frowning, "why are you still abed at this hour? You will be late. You know how far it is to the city!"
He coughed in a way that he hoped sounded sufficiently pathetic, but with the fakery came actual nausea, and he had to shut his eyes until it passed.
"I don't feel well," he said, and it was only half a lie.
Still frowning, his mother bent and pressed a hand to his forehead. "You seem fine," she said. "But if you say so..."
He coughed again. "Very ill. I'm sorry."
"I suppose you should stay, then." She straightened up, hands on her hips, but her expression was one of fondness. "Marce, what is it, truly?"
"I told you," he insisted, with the increasing suspicion that he had not fooled her, "I am unwell. I'm not lying!"
"When you were a child," she said, with a sigh, "and you came home bruised from fighting, you never once told me what had happened, or who had hurt you."
He didn't want to talk about this. He tried to turn away, but she grabbed his arm.
"But what you always did," she added, very softly, "was go back the next day. You did not cry. You only kept going. So I am asking, Marce, what is the matter now?"
He couldn't tell her. I am ill, he meant to say, when he opened his mouth. I told you I was.
"I— I can't tell you." The words came out of him strangled. "I'm sorry."
She had been wrong about how he should befriend the Gauls. It was wrong. It would not make a difference, except to make everyone hate him, to make him hate himself. He could not say this to her.
And then his mother had gathered him up in her arms and was embracing him, as if he were a child, but he realized that she was shaking. She was afraid, he realized. He had not known his mother to be afraid, not of anything.
"It will be well, Mother," he said, awkwardly.
She released him and stepped back, her face tight and drawn. "That's what we're all praying to the gods for. I'll have one of the slaves bring you something light to eat and some water. See if you feel better after eating something."
When she had gone, Marcus threw himself down to the bed again, curled in upon himself, drawing his knees up to his chest. It would not work forever, to hide from Esca, to hide from his feelings, from everyone's judgments. But it didn't have to work forever; it only had to work for long enough. He could do that. He would not be the one to dishonor his people, to start a war.
He wanted so desperately to hide all day, but he could not. It was his duty to attend the negotiations, even if he did not want to. His honor, his paltry honor, demanded this of him, and he had little enough of it that he needed to guard the scraps that remained. He was not an important part of the negotiation, but Larth himself had asked, and so he had to go. His feelings were of no consequence, and could not be allowed to become so.
No one said anything when he stepped into his place next to Avile, and he thought perhaps that was the worst thing of all. Or perhaps that was the best, for though Avile glared at him, at least he said nothing.
"I was ill," Marcus mumbled. Not that anyone had asked him.
"Should have come earlier anyway," Avile said, under his breath. "Could have infected your friend there."
With the barest tilt of his head, with a casual glance, Avile indicated the Gaulish envoy, and Marcus did not even have to follow his gaze to know that he meant Esca.
"He's not my—" Marcus bit his lip. "He's nothing to me."
Avile lifted an eyebrow. "Then why have you been talking to him? You don't see any of us saying anything."
"I wasn't saying—" Marcus began, but someone behind him hissed a complaint and he shut his mouth. Whatever Avile wanted to say, well, it would keep.
He drew himself up straighter, looked ahead, and found that Esca was looking in his direction, smiling ever so faintly.
Marcus dragged his eyes away. It meant nothing.
The ringing echo of metal sounded, a drawn sword, and Marcus could see the glint of it in Brennos' hands. At once Marcus' every muscle went rigid with fear and tension. Was this it? Was this how they were to die? His hands tightened about the spear—a thing he didn't even know how to use, really—and he heard around him the sudden shift in readiness, as hands went to sword-hilts.
But Larth was brave, truly brave. He did not seem afraid at all. He stood there, facing Brennos in silence, for the span of a few breaths, while Marcus' own heart pounded quick and terrified in his ears.
Brennos made no move, still with the sword in his hand.
Larth turned back to the rest of the Clusines and held up an empty hand. "Stand down," he said, in Etruscan. "He hasn't killed me yet."
All around Marcus, men moved their hands ostentatiously away from their swords. Marcus could not seem to make his own fingers loosen their grip on the spear-shaft.
With a heavy thud, the sword landed on the table between the two leaders. At least Brennos had not pointed it at them. But there was no levity in the Gaul's voice now, no kindness. "Do you think this is a game, Clusine?" he said, with a voice cold as iron. "Do you think we are traders, and that we are merely content to bargain over a price? You cannot walk away from this deal."
Marcus could not help it—he dared a glance over at Esca. But Esca's face was still, closed-off, revealing nothing.
Unbelievably, Larth smiled. "I have a counter-proposal."
"I am not in the mood to listen to your pleas for more money."
"Nothing of the sort," returned Larth. "I only have... a suggestion. About the shape of the talks, as it were."
Brennos sniffed, unimpressed. But he must have been interested. "Oh?"
Larth leaned forward, inviting agreement, acquiescence. "Surely it has not escaped your notice that we are having difficulty finding an equitable solution. I had thought perhaps that we might bring in... outside negotiators. If a neutral party came to broker peace between us, they would treat your people and mine equally and fairly, and perhaps a compromise could be reached."
Brennos blinked a few times. Even Marcus was surprised. But it was a sensible thing to do. They could appeal to someone for aid—perhaps in Umbria.
"Who did you have in mind?" Brennos asked.
"I would send for the Romans."
Marcus staggered, suddenly off-balance, and clutched at his spear. The Romans. Gods. Why them? Why here, why now? He remembered sitting with his father in the shade of the great old holm-oak by the gate, laughing as his father taught him to play flash-the-fingers, practicing his numbers in Latin. And then, hard on the heels of that memory, the cough his father had, coughing and coughing until one day it was all blood, and his mother had sent him out of the house, but he had known, he had known what it meant—
"—have never met these Romans," Brennos was saying. "But you swear that they will be neutral toward us?"
Larth nodded. "I swear it. We have no claim on them, nor they on us."
That, Marcus thought, was more than clear. The Clusines had not even gone to defend Veii when the Romans had come for it, six years ago, and some of them had had kin there. Certainly they were not Rome's enemy here, and Marcus' life itself was proof that neither were they Rome's unquestioned allies.
After a long pause, Brennos reached out and sheathed his sword. "This is acceptable."
They broke for a meal, then, and Marcus was so strange and out-of-sorts still, caught up in memories, that he could hardly pay attention when Larth gathered the rest of the group around him.
"We will need to send someone to Rome, of course," said Larth.
Rome. Marcus felt sick at the thought. He had never seen Rome in his life, of course, but he was the natural choice for a messenger. After all, he was the only one of them who knew Latin; very few in the city had ever had the opportunity to learn it. But if he went to Rome, what would happen? He knew in his heart, then, that he was not Roman either, belonging to both peoples and neither. He hated the thought that Larth would pick him, even as part of him was excited to finally be able to see the city where his father had been born—
"Naturally, this is a matter of great delicacy," Larth said.
Marcus clenched his jaw.
Larth's gaze settled on the man next to Marcus. "Avile?"
His heart twisted up inside him, and he knew he had wanted it after all.
Avile smirked. "I would be honored."
"Leave at once," Larth continued. "Ask for whatever aid they can spare."
"Troops?" asked Avile, and Marcus forgot how to breathe. They promised. Larth had promised peace. O Tinia, that they should not cross the Gauls! If the Roman ambassadors were to come with soldiers, it would be war indeed.
But Larth was shaking his head. "I do not think they can spare any, and besides, I have vouched for their impartiality. It would be... awkward, if they came armed for battle."
"Understood." Avile trotted off, presumably to prepare for the journey.
At least Avile would not be there to bother him, and that was perhaps the only good thing about it. He would make an offering to winged Turms the messenger himself, Marcus thought, that the Romans should aid them. But perhaps he would call upon him as Mercury.
"Pass him the whole drinking-bowl, husband," she said, waving a hand at Caile, "if only he will tell us more of the Gauls."
Even through the pleasant haze of wine, something half-sick and half-desirous blossomed within Marcus. He could almost have forgotten, if they had not mentioned it. He wished they had not.
It had been twelve days since Avile had left for Rome, and, assuming their senate granted his petition immediately, at least another few before he would be back. The negotiations had, by quiet agreement, stopped until the Romans could arrive, and the Gauls had settled back into their camp; from what Marcus could see, they did not appear to be planning an imminent attack. And to look at Clusium, one might almost think life was proceeding as normal. Today had been a market-day, and Marcus had just sold the farm's second-best pig when Seianti and Caile had waylaid him and invited him for a meal.
His throat suddenly dry, he filled his cup, poured a libation for Fufluns, and had another sip. His hands shook a little. "What of the Gauls?"
"She wants to know if they are handsome!" said Caile, laughing, his round face flushed and his eyes bright, and it was only that he found himself so hilarious that prevented Marcus from panicking entirely.
Seianti leaned over and swatted her husband. "Hush, you. I do not." She grinned. "Well, perhaps a little. You should like them, Marcus, yes? I have heard they are all as tall as you! I remember when you spent three months mooning over Thefri just because he was taller than you."
Marcus choked on his wine.
"No shame in that. Everyone liked Thefri then." Caile laughed again and took another drink.
"It wasn't him," Marcus insisted, the same thing he had insisted for five years, but it was not as though they had believed the lie then, either. "It was his sister, I swear it!"
"Of course you did," Seianti said, with the same indulgent smile as always. "So, are they handsome?"
"They are tall," Marcus allowed. It's the short one who's handsome.
Seianti set her cup down on the nearest table with a clunk. "I thought so. But, no, truly, I wanted to know of the negotiations. I had asked Larth if I could attend, but he said, no, that he did not want to cause offense, because what if they took exception to women who gave counsel? I thought it was ridiculous. Surely no one would object to a woman—"
"The Romans would," Marcus pointed out.
"The Romans are idiots," Caile said, and Marcus winced. "Sorry," he added, not quickly enough. "I meant nothing by it, Marcus."
At least Caile liked him; Marcus could put up with the unintentional insults.
"But they do not make any sense. We sent them Thanchvil, once, and they were happy enough to listen to her."
Marcus sighed. "They listened to her husband, who listened to her. It is different." Thanchvil—Tanaquil, he thought the Romans had named her—had been centuries ago. And Marcus did not think the Romans would like being reminded of their kings now, either.
"It is stupid, you mean," said Seianti, her mouth curling in distaste. "You are saying I could send Caile in my place, with my words in his mouth, and that would be well, if we all pretended that I had nothing to do with it? And no other involvement would be permitted?"
He raised a hand, warding off her anger. "I did not say it was my custom. And besides, it is only true if they are like the Romans."
"So what have they said, then? How have they seemed?" This was Caile.
Marcus frowned. "It is hard to say. Their chieftain, Brennos—him I cannot understand. At one moment, he is talking peacefully, reasonably, and at the next he draws his sword."
Seianti gasped. "Did he—?"
"It went well enough. That was when Larth suggested sending for the Romans."
"Do you think they will help us?" she asked. "On our side?"
He shrugged. "They aren't supposed to be on anyone's side," he said, but the thoughts that ran circles in his head were my father would have he would have he loved me, and he shut his eyes, lightheaded, and drank his wine anyway.
"They have to be able to do something." Caile spoke with all the conviction of someone who desperately wants a thing to be true. "They have to help us fight them."
"Maybe—" Marcus swallowed, suddenly unsteady, glad he was already lying down— "maybe they will give us peace. Without a war."
"Invaders?" his friend said, incredulous. "Peaceful?"
"They are not all bad," Marcus insisted. "Esca isn't bad," he said. Horrified, he shut his mouth, but it was too late. He had not meant to say Esca's name.
Giggling, Seianti added, "Is he tall?"
Miserably, Marcus closed his eyes. He could hear Caile whispering something, some plea not to tease him about this, woman, don't you see his face? Marcus made himself look at them, made himself say something.
"He's—" Marcus began, and then stopped. It seemed ridiculous, that it could mean so much to him that one of the Gauls would show even the slightest kindness. "He greeted me, when none of the others said anything to anyone. And he helped smooth over the talks where they went poorly. He seemed like he wanted to be friends. Avile saw us, and—"
"Avile?" Caile took another drink. "Don't listen to a thing he has to say. Why do I have to keep telling you this?"
Easy for him to say; he hadn't had to deal with nineteen years of constant jibes. Insults. Fists. "Avile hates me."
"So—" Marcus waved his hands, nearly spilling his cup— "it matters."
"Pfft. But if this Esca likes you... that's—well, that's worth something. Or, it could be. We can make it work for us." But Marcus could see the darkening of Caile's eyes as he said it, even as his face was all happiness. He was pretending this, for Marcus' sake. He knew the invaders couldn't really be trusted.
How could he tell them how it felt, knowing that you liked the enemy, hating yourself for it? He couldn't. He couldn't explain any of it. "He's short," Marcus added, sourly, just to see if it would make Seianti laugh. It did.
"Well," she said, pouring the last of the wine into her cup. "He can't be perfect."
Still, it was light enough to see—night was coming on faster than he would like, but the light would last long enough, he thought—and he was alone on the path. It would be a quiet walk.
He was too far to turn back when he realized he was not alone.
The voices behind him were loud and raucous, and they spoke in Gaulish. And they were coming closer.
A bead of sweat trickled down the back of Marcus' neck and his heart began to pound, drumming fast. The Gaulish encampment was far away. The Gaulish encampment was in the opposite direction. There was no conceivable reason for the Gauls, any Gauls, to be on this road, unless— unless—
They were following him.
He could run. Run, run, a voice in his mind screamed, and every muscle in him tensed at once. No. He couldn't. If he ran to Clusium—well, they were between him and Clusium, and they would catch him. And if he ran home, he would lead them home—his home, smoldering, ruined, his mother dead or worse—and he would not, he would not do that.
Stand and fight. He nearly put his hand to his dagger, but then he realized how little good that would do. By the sound of their voices, there were at least three of them, maybe four. And Marcus was no warrior; he did not like those odds. Besides, now, his life was more than just his, he realized with an eerie chill down his spine. If they found— if they found his body, the Gauls could say he attacked them, that they were only defending themselves. The peace would be broken. It would be his word against theirs, and he could not give his word if he were dead. Whatever it was, he had to survive it.
He would not be the one to bring the war upon them.
The voices were closer now, and very suddenly, they switched to Umbrian. They wanted to be understood.
"Hey, boy!" one voice called out. "You!"
Marcus turned. Four men. They were all bigger than him, impossibly huge, and in the rapidly-dimming twilight they seemed even larger, looming and shadowed.
Marcus swallowed, his throat dry. "Yes?"
"I think he's afraid, eh, Latumaros?" a second one said to the first, cackling with laughter. "You afraid of us, boy?"
Marcus' tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth and he could not speak.
Latumaros grinned. His smile was missing several teeth. "Don't fear us, boy. We're only looking for a bit of fun."
"Unfriendly bastards, the lot of you," complained a third.
Then Latumaros had a huge hand on Marcus' face, about his jaw, and if Marcus could have done something, he would have moved back, he would have run, he would have punched the stinking Gaul in the mouth, in the throat. But he could only watch, horrified; it was as if someone else was in his body, and he could do nothing with it.
Latumaros neatly plucked Marcus' dagger from his belt with his free hand.
"Going home?" the second man asked. "What's at home, then? Lovely wife, waiting for you? Gods, I haven't had a woman in six months—"
Marcus twisted his head awkwardly; he was still held in Latumaros' grasp. "I'm not married." He could not have said why he spoke the truth. "You don't— you don't want to threaten me— the envoy—"
This only made Latumaros laugh harder. "You hear that, Icorix? He thinks we're threatening him." The man laughed again, and Marcus would have jerked back from the hot breath in his face but that he could not move.
The man who had been quiet until now, the last man, stepped forward, and Marcus heard the awful scrape of a weapon being unsheathed.
"This would be threatening," the man said, sounding almost calm, and Marcus felt the swordpoint settle just so, in the space between two ribs. He trembled and tried to hold still. They were going to kill him. They were going to kill him for this, for no reason at all—
The other men were still laughing, jeering. "Make him beg, Doros!" Latumaros said. "I want to see him beg."
Doros pulled the sword away, and then, too quickly for Marcus to react, there were hands on his head, on his back, pushing him into the dirt. His leg twisted under him and he went down, head against the ground. His face scraped against a rock, but, even worse, the sword was on him again when he tried to get up, stinging the back of his neck, cutting just deeply enough to break the skin, with a thin line of bright pain. They had him. They didn't want him to move.
Marcus shut his eyes. The war would start here, then. I'm sorry. O gods, I am sorry for what will happen when they kill me.
"Ask us for your life," one of the men said, still laughing. "Beg us, you pathetic little—"
Then several things happened at once: the pressure on his neck relaxed, someone—farther away by the sound of it—cried out in Gaulish, in words Marcus could not understand, and all the laughter stopped.
"You drunken idiots," the voice said, in Umbrian now and much closer, "by all the gods, what do you think you're doing?"
It sounded familiar, but Marcus could not say why. He kept his eyes shut, his face pressed into the earth.
"You followed us?" came Icorix' dumbfounded reply.
They were all trying to talk at once. "We were only having some fun—" That was Latumaros.
"By killing an innocent man and starting a war? You seem to have your sword on an Etruscan neck, there."
"We wouldn't have killed him!"
"Oh?" The stranger was sardonic now. "I see. You think I'm an idiot as well. Get back to camp, all of you, before I decide to tell my father. If I tell my father, he will tell Brennos." The man did not even have to finish his threat.
The men moved away. Marcus could tell that much from the footsteps, without opening his eyes. He didn't want to open his eyes. He wanted the stranger to be gone. He wanted to get up and walk away—or limp away, he thought, realizing only now how his leg had turned and crumpled when they shoved him—and he wanted never to think about this again.
A hand settled on his shoulder, and despite himself, Marcus flinched away. Even if the Gaul had saved him, he didn't want him— anyone— to touch him.
"Ah, there," said the man, softly, very softly. It was the sort of voice you used for coaxing scared animals, and Marcus hated that the man would use it on him even as he secretly appreciated the kindness of it. "I imagine you want nothing more to do with any of my people, but here, let me help you stand up, and you'll never have to see me again. The rest of them are gone, I swear it."
Marcus turned and looked up, and suddenly he knew why the man's voice had been so familiar. It was Esca. The man was wearing very little of the finery from the talks—only the torc remained. It had hounds on the finials, Marcus noted absently, his stunned mind focusing on the most inconsequential details. With the torc, Esca wore ragged clothes, a rough hooded cloak over a patched tunic and trousers, but Marcus would have known his face anywhere.
Esca blanched, and his eyes were wide in shock. "You're— you're the man from the negotiations— I didn't even know— they could have killed you—"
They stared at each other awkwardly, and Marcus could only wonder what he meant by that, what Esca would have done differently, if he had known. He didn't want to owe his life to Esca.
"I am grateful," Marcus said, hoarsely, and then, feeling like the very least he owed the man was his identity: "And... my name is Marcus."
"Marcus," Esca said, thoughtfully, and then he held out a darkly-inked hand, the very same hand that just the other day had been clutching a weapon. "I have to say, this wasn't how I wanted to learn your name."
"This wasn't how I wanted to give it." He hoped that in the dimness Esca could not see the angry color of his face. He didn't want to be beholden to Esca. But at the same time, he wanted to stand up.
"Let me help you," Esca said again, in that same infinitely gentle tone, as if Marcus would be the one doing him a favor, and the last bit of resistance in Marcus crumpled and gave way.
With difficulty, Marcus threw his arm around Esca's shoulders. Esca was warm in the cold night, and he was stronger than Marcus would have thought, all bunched wiry strength, for he did not even stagger when Marcus leaned on him. It was good, it was very good indeed.
"Sa, sa, there you go," Esca murmured, as Marcus got his feet under him, testing if his leg would hold his weight. Esca's arm was still around him, so warm, Esca pressed so close to him. Esca was the enemy. He wasn't supposed to be kind, not like this— and Marcus shouldn't enjoy it. "Are you injured?"
Marcus shook his head, and Esca let him go. Even though his legs should have been steady, he wobbled a little, feeling as if something greatly needed had been torn away from him, and he could not say what it was.
"How did you find me? How did you know to find me?"
Esca looked away and gave a little shrug. "Latumaros and his friends are never up to any good, and the mood at the camp lately has been... restless. When I saw that they were leaving, I followed them. I feared they might try something unfortunate, but I have to say I wasn't imagining anything as awful as this. I am sorry for all the trouble we have caused you."
It is well, it was on Marcus' lips to say, except it wasn't, it wasn't well at all, and then the horrifying thought occurred to him, what would happen if he told someone, if he said the Gauls had assaulted him. The truth would destroy everything.
"I fell down," Marcus said, slowly. "Tripped. On my way home. It was a lucky thing you were passing by." It would explain the scrape on his cheek, at least.
Esca's mouth parted, a relieved smile, and then he nodded. "I am glad I could help pick you back up."
Then the one inconsistency occurred to him. "But Latumaros has my dagger."
"Does he?" Esca frowned. "I will have words with him. He can be persuaded. He will not want to let anyone know what has happened. I think— I think we can keep this quiet."
"Thank you," said Marcus, not knowing why he was thanking him when it had been the Gauls' fault, but he had to say something, and damn him, he wanted Esca to smile again.
And Esca must have somehow known his thoughts, since he grinned at him. "Will you be well, on your way home? You are going home? I could walk with you—"
He imagined his mother's face if he came home with his arms around the Gaulish chieftain's son. Friends, she had said, but surely she hadn't meant this.
"I am fine," Marcus said. "I will see you—" he realized he was fidgeting— "well, I suppose I will see you at the negotiations—" He needed to stop talking. He sounded foolish. He shut his mouth, clenching his jaw hard.
Esca smiled one last time, and it did not make Marcus happy, it did not, except that it did. "Be well, Marcus."
Then Esca turned and disappeared into the night. Marcus stood for a long while, watching him walk away. He thought he still felt warm, all along his side where Esca had touched him.
"Why?" asked his mother, over breakfast. In the days since the Gauls had come, the meals had become smaller and smaller, the bread grittier, the water muddier. Marcus tried not to think about this; there was nothing he could do. "Are the Romans here already?"
Marcus shook his head for no.
It was not to see Esca. Esca would not even be there, if the Romans had not come yet. But he felt that living outside the city had kept them apart from the news, and more than anything he wanted to know what was happening, even if the Gauls were doing nothing. Even if they were, at least he would be there to know that; out here, Marcus would know nothing of anything until someone brought him word, and he wanted to know for himself. Otherwise it was all too easy for hideous imaginings to take the place of reality.
"No," he said, pushing the last of the bread across the table. His mother needed it more than he did. "But I would like to learn what is happening, at any rate. There will be sacrifices again today, I think." There were always sacrifices, and there were these days more than ever before, for with an army at the gates it was of course only prudent to be on the good side of the gods.
His mother gave a faint smile. "Be careful on the road, dear." For of course she believed him, when he had said that he had fallen down.
Later that morning, when he stood in front of the temple with the rest of the crowd, Marcus was no longer certain they had the goodwill of father Tinia.
The priest was young—it was, in fact, Velthur's first year—and he had not waited quite long enough for the sheep to bow its head to the god, to agree to the sacrifice. A low murmur of discontent rippled through the onlookers. The priest, beginning to look more frantic, spilled a palmful of water on the sheep's head—they must be desperate indeed, thought Marcus, for the trick was not usually so obviously done—and the beast finally bleated and tossed its head up and down. Good enough.
But oh, it fought the knife, a further ill omen, and you did not need to be a priest to know that. The woman next to Marcus gasped.
Marcus shut his eyes and pulled his old, patched tabenna about himself. He knew what was coming. The omens are poor, he imagined Velthur saying, staring at the entrails. But Velthur said nothing, and when Marcus opened his eyes the priest was staring curiously at the sheep, then over at the little model of a liver that they kept—he was new enough that he still needed to check.
"The omens are... good?" Velthur's face was quizzical, and his blood-soaked hands trembled.
Marcus frowned. The sacrifice had been ill, that much was plain to see, but how had it been well-received? What could the gods be saying?
Perhaps it meant that affairs would go poorly but then well. It would be a curious thing, and Marcus wondered how in the world that would ever happen.
"Ah," the woman next to him said, "it means we will drive back the Gauls!"
The crowd took this up, in a wave of happiness, but Marcus did not know whether to be content with that. The beast had tried to run, and he knew, he knew, that Clusium would not escape cleanly.
Still, this would be news he could take back to his mother; it would please everyone to know that the omens were, in the end, favorable, however it had come about. He might as well head back now; he had no need of anything else in Clusium.
The path was deserted before it occurred to Marcus to be wary about it. What had happened yesterday could just as easily happen again. His hand dropped to his belt, finding only an empty sheath, and Marcus cursed himself under his breath. They had taken his dagger. He had forgotten that. He was unarmed. He wished he had thought to at least bring Cneve's spear for the walk, because he had nothing.
There was a man up ahead. It was at the side of the road, and at the very spot where the Gauls had attacked him yesterday. Marcus heard the blood roar through his ears, and he wavered a little, unsteady. Whoever it was wasn't moving. No, they were moving. They had been sitting on a rock at the trailside, waiting. Waiting for him, because now the stranger was moving toward him. Marcus saw a glint of metal, bright and deadly, but the sun was in his own eyes, and he could not make out a thing about the man, other than that he was armed.
O gods, not again. He had survived this yesterday, but now, now he had no weapon—
"Marcus," called Esca, "I brought you your dagger!"
Marcus exhaled and swayed on his feet, relieved beyond the telling of it. He was safe, but— Esca? Esca was here? "Are you mad?" he called back, realizing only after he said it that he should not speak so to the invader. "Someone will find you here!"
Esca shrugged. Now that he was closer Marcus could see the awkward, nervous tension in the way Esca was holding himself, though his voice had been brave. Marcus swallowed hard, and felt something warm tighten in his chest: they were not so different.
"It was the only place I knew to find you that wasn't the city." As Esca spoke, he flipped Marcus' dagger; it spun end over end in the air until he caught it by the hilt. It was a pretty trick. He had some skill after all. He was showing off. Why was he showing off?
"Still, won't you be missed?" He shouldn't care. There was no reason he should care.
Esca grinned. "You know how it is. You tell your father you're at the picket lines. You tell the horsemen you're with the sentries. You tell the sentries you've gone to set a few traps for game, so they expect you to be leaving camp, and you've got at least a couple hours before they even try to sort it out. And when they do they all think you've gone whoring and will believe you if you don't want to talk about it, anyway."
"Oh." It was a good plan. Though Marcus, of course, was nothing like the camp followers, because he didn't want— he couldn't want— he just didn't.
"Here." Esca held out the dagger, flat on his palm. "I thought you might want that back."
Marcus took it. Esca's hand was callused—those were sword-calluses, certainly, and this man was no farmer's son—and warm to the touch. Marcus jerked back.
Esca tilted his head and regarded Marcus silently, a smile playing about the edges of his mouth.
"Come home with me," Marcus blurted out.
He wanted to cover his mouth and take it all back. Where had that even come from? Esca only blinked at him.
"I mean— not like that," Marcus tried, feeling his face grow hot. "I mean, it may be that you will live here, peacefully, if your people and mine can come to an agreement, and I would welcome you as a neighbor. And you... you saved my life." It was an offer that would have been right to extend to anyone else who had done the same for him. Anyone who wasn't the enemy.
Why had he said that? He must be mindful that the Gauls were not truly his friends. How would he explain it to his mother? Whatever she had said earlier, surely she had not meant for him to bring one to their home. Why was he doing this?
But it was too late to take the invitation back; Esca was smiling and smiling, as if it were the best offer anyone had ever made him.
"Gladly I will," he said, "but I have been out too long today." Had he been waiting all morning for Marcus? "Is there another day that would suit you?"
"Tomorrow," said Marcus, firmly, wondering if he was making the worst mistake of his life. "Meet me here, at this time, tomorrow."
Sitting up, Marcus reached for him. He knew it wasn't real, and that was why he was doing this. If it wasn't real, he could do anything he wanted. Anything. He had no idea what he wanted.
But Esca laughed and stepped backwards, darting away before Marcus could touch him, and the dream dissolved before Marcus' eyes.
Marcus awoke, shaking, seized by a vast and hideous excitement, and for the life of him he could not have said whether he was pleased or terrified. The one did not preclude the other.
It was dishonest, Marcus knew, to ask his mother this when it was the very day, and she would surely realize that there was no way they could tell this friend no until he had shown up at their door.
"I do not think we need to feed him a great meal," he added, remembering their dwindling victuals, and then it occurred to him that perhaps a chieftain's son would in fact expect the best of meals. Well, it was too late to do anything about that. "I can entertain him by myself well enough."
His mother smiled, but her eyes were a little reproachful. "As long as you make sure the troughs are full before he gets here, Marce, do as you like."
There were always tasks to be done about the farm, and Marcus raced out the door when he had barely finished his breakfast. The sooner he completed them, the sooner—well, Esca would not be waiting for him until later. But this way he had time to think it through, and perhaps to wash up so that he did not smell quite so much like sheep. That would not impress Esca. He did not know why he should care so about impressing Esca.
It took longer than he thought to water the animals, and by the time he was done, it was time to fetch Esca. There was no time left for anything else. It would have to do.
He put one foot in front of the next on the dusty ground, painfully conscious of how impressive he wasn't. A poor farmer, hated by half of Clusium—what did he have that would make a Gaulish noble interested in him? Why was he doing this? Why should he be kind to a man who could point his hand and take and take and take?
And then Esca lifted his head and smiled, and all of Marcus' worries vanished. Oh, he thought, stupidly. That's why. For there was something about Esca—he could not put a name to it—that told him Esca was kind in return. Esca would not be vile or uncaring. He had a quality in him, the bearing of kings, that made one want to trust him. He would be a great chieftain someday among his own people. Marcus almost wished that it was Esca rather than Brennos who was doing the negotiating.
Esca was still dressed in the Gaulish manner today, trousers and all, though the clothing was not as bright and rich; no doubt the better clothing would have given him away on his way here. About his neck, though, he still wore his band of gold, a finely-wrought shimmering torc, with its snarling, fierce hounds at the ends. Only a rich man owned a thing such as that. And on Esca it was elegant; it did not soften the harshness of his features, but somehow he looked exactly right.
He realized he was staring when Esca lifted his chin, a gesture that might have been a nod, and smiled. "What, do I look ill?"
"No," Marcus said, hastily, too hastily. "You look very well."
The smile spread wider. "Good."
"Our farm is this way," said Marcus, gesturing for Esca to follow him.
"Our farm?" Esca put a bit of emphasis on the first word, his face bunching in confusion, the smile beginning to fade. "You are... married?"
"No, no!" He was saying it all wrong, all of it. "I am not married. It is my mother's farm."
Esca began to pick his way down the path. "I see." Marcus could have been imagining it, but he thought Esca sounded distinctly... happier? Why should that be the case? "It is good to respect your elders even here, I suppose."
"We are not barbarians," Marcus said, with some asperity, kicking a stone out of his way.
Esca laughed. "Neither are we."
They proceeded along the path in silence, for there was little Marcus could say to that, but then Esca turned to him and lifted one eyebrow, and he held himself as if he had been thinking about what to say for too long now.
"Your mother... knows you invited a Gaul?"
Marcus pursed his lips. "She knows I invited someone."
There came a faint hiss of disapproval. "I hope you have other plans for the day's meal." When Marcus looked over, Esca was wincing. "In my experience so far, your people have not been kindly disposed toward mine."
Where you are concerned, I am, Marcus thought, an awful thought, mixed with a more predictable of course they are not. Why should anyone treat the Gauls with anything more than the minimum of politeness? Of course, he still did not know why he was. But he hated to think of anyone, especially the Clusines, being cruel to Esca, even if he was a Gaul.
And then, soon enough, they were down into the valley and at the worn gate of the farm. Marcus held his breath and waited for Esca to say something; it was surely plain that the farm had seen better days, and likely in Umbria Esca had seen far better than this. But Esca's eyes were wide, his face open and honest and enthralled, as he took in the buildings, the beasts, the spread of the fields.
"It is lovely," Esca said, as Marcus unlatched the gate, and Marcus knew he meant it.
He shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. "It's home."
As they walked forward, Marcus could hear that his mother was calling from inside the house. "The meal's almost ready." She was coming closer; her voice was louder. "I hope your friend from the city doesn't mind only beans—"
And then she stepped outside and saw them, and her mouth closed and then opened again. She said nothing.
"Mother," Marcus said, feeling as though this was the most awkward thing that had ever happened to him. "This is Esca, of the Senones. He is part of the envoy." Switching from his own language into Umbrian again, he turned to Esca. "Esca, this is my mother, Velia."
He waited for Esca to speak, that he might translate it—his mother's Umbrian was not so good—but Marcus received his own portion of the meeting's surprises when Esca stepped forward, smiling, and said, in perfectly well-mannered speech, "I greet you, and I wish you and your family good fortune." Esca's Etruscan was worse than his Umbrian, to be sure, heavily accented and with some of the words wrong, but he had never given any hint that he so much as understood it.
"You did not... you did not tell me you spoke my language," he said, faintly, when he trusted himself to speak.
Esca's words were halting, but Marcus could not help but be charmed, hearing his own language on Esca's lips. "Not well. I speak a little. Badly." He gave the tiniest of grins. "I think perhaps it was a thing I was not supposed to tell you."
He understood why, of course, as soon as Esca said it; the Gauls wanted to know what was being said about them. He tried to remember what he might have said, what anyone might have said, in Esca's presence.
"No one actually told me I wasn't to tell you, though," Esca added, grinning brightly.
Marcus could tell where this conversation was going. "Let me guess," he added, "they also didn't tell you you shouldn't go visiting the Clusines you meet. And this would be because you didn't mention it to anyone."
"Good fortune to you as well, Esca," said his mother, and she eyed Marcus reprovingly. "I only wish my son had mentioned that his friend from the city was a Gaulish ambassador. I cannot feed you only beans. Here, we will slaughter you a pig—"
Esca held out his hands. "Truly, there is no need. I am not an ambassador; that is my father's task. He is the chieftain, not I. Whatever you were planning will serve nicely."
"A chieftain's son eats beans?" Marcus had been imagining Esca like a prince or a king in tales, with all the food he could ever want, the best of all things. It was only now occurring to him that that might not be the case.
Esca laughed again. "The chieftain's son happens to like beans."
Marcus' mother drew herself up tall at that, looking distinctly pleased, and Marcus could tell Esca had won her over already.
That made two of them.
And all the while Esca smiled and nodded and complimented the food and was in every respect a gracious guest. If you didn't look at him, Marcus thought, and could be blind to the stamp of Gaul on his features, you would think he was from any normal city-state. It made something in Marcus twist unpleasantly. Could Esca not be one thing or the other? Could he not be someone understandable?
Esca was silent only for the last question, which Marcus' mother must have asked without thinking about it: "And why did your people leave Gaul?"
Esca's mouth snapped shut, and there was a pained look on his face. Marcus could guess well enough what the answer would have been: to conquer. He knew Esca did not want to say that.
"Oh," Marcus' mother said, recoiling a little; she had realized that too. She shifted subjects well enough, though. "Well. Would either of you like apples?"
"That would be most kind," said Esca, recovering his smile.
"We can eat them outside," Marcus offered. "Here, Esca, I will show you the rest of the farm."
"You already know what goats look like." Marcus took another bite of apple. It was nearly done now.
Esca laughed and leaned against the holm-oak, sliding slowly to the dirt. "I do, I do."
It was cool in the shade, though the sky was clear and the day bright. Esca seemed grateful to be in the shade; he drew his legs up to his chest, wrapped his arms around his knees, and tilted his head back against the bark. A gust of wind shook the leaves, and Marcus watched the dappled patterns of shadow on Esca's face warp and shift.
They had climbed halfway up the valley on the other side, to Marcus' favorite spot on the whole farm. A little stream ran by, just below. He had spent hours and hours here as a child. Looking out, he could see the whole farm spread below them, and—as this was one of the taller hills in the area—a great amount of the surrounding land, cleared for crops here and there, marked out for pastures in others. In the distance, the walls of the city were almost visible, peeking out above one ridge.
And Esca himself was a sight as well, albeit in a different way. Esca was still finishing off his apple as well, and Marcus stared, intrigued, at the swirls of ink on Esca's hands as he lifted the fruit to the mouth. Given the hounds on his shield and torc, Marcus expected to see them on Esca's body as well, a pattern repeated. But if there were hounds he could not make them out; instead, wide lines twined together and split apart, weaving under and around each other. It was alien and beautiful at once, and Marcus wondered if he ought to be afraid. He wondered what it all meant.
"I had thought," said Marcus, recovering his wits, "that you might want to see some of the land. You cannot have seen much of the countryside, can you?"
As he said it he wondered if Esca was thinking like a warrior, thinking of battles and tactics, if he was even now picturing how fighting men would come, just so, cresting the top of the hill. He wondered if he ought to be showing Esca the lay of the land.
But Esca was not even looking at the land. His head was still tipped back, and he was regarding Marcus through half-closed eyes and smiling. "It is a lovely place," he said, in Marcus' own language, and Marcus really, truly needed to stop finding his accent so charming. "I rather like this Etruria of yours."
The word Etruria, just as it was in Latin, sounded bizarre and wrong in the middle of the rest of the language. How had Esca learned so much of the language, and never learned their own words for themselves?
Marcus started to laugh; he couldn't help himself.
He watched Esca's face fall. "Did I say the wrong thing?" he said, switching to Umbrian. "Don't tell me. No, wait, do tell me. I need to know if I've offered to fuck your homeland, or something equally horrible."
"It wasn't that bad." Marcus hastened to reassure him, while trying not to start laughing again at the thought of Esca saying that. "It is only— did you learn our language from a wandering Latin? A Roman? Only they call us the Tusci. It is not our name for ourselves."
"Oh." Esca gnawed at the remains of his apple, and then he threw it into the grass. "That is not the worst thing I could have said, I suppose."
"No," agreed Marcus, and then, so Esca would know: "We are Rasenna. Or Rasna, if you are speaking quickly."
"Rasenna." Esca said the word thoughtfully, drawing out the middle of it, and he looked over and grinned a delighted grin. "Rasenna. Senones. Sen, sen, sen. Do they seem alike to you? Perhaps we are kin, eh? Cousins? Brothers? My long-lost brother?" He rubbed at his chin, pretending to scrutinize Marcus' face as one might a distant relative. "We are not very similar in appearance, but I have known stranger brothers." His voice was light. It was a joke, only a joke.
Marcus felt a pang of unease at that idea, a strange feeling, and he could not have said why the idea bothered him. He ought to have liked it, he thought. If they were kin, there would be no wars—or at least, nothing as wretched as what the Gauls were threatening. The Senones. He could at least do Esca the same courtesy, of using the right name for his people. But he... he did not want to be Esca's brother. He could not have said what he wanted; it still eluded him. He sighed, and Esca raised a curious eyebrow.
"While we're on the subject," he said, hoping Esca would not ask him for his thoughts, "the city, it is only Camars in Umbrian. And it is not Clusium, unless you are a Roman. For us, Clevsin."
Esca's face was a little flushed, his eyes downcast—Marcus judged that he was ashamed to have said that wrong as well—but he nodded and made a try at the pronunciation. "Clevsin. Clevsin. Do you know, I think I like that better."
"I certainly do."
"Next I suppose you will tell me," Esca said, his voice cheerful, still joking, "that your name is not Marcus either, that it is some terribly Etruscan—excuse me, Rasenna—name like, like... Fufluns."
"Fufluns is a god," Marcus said, mildly appalled. But he found he was smiling in return.
"So your name is Marcus, then."
"It is." But he knew he had to tell Esca all of it. "You were right, though—it is a Roman name."
Next to him Esca gave only a quiet breath, and he said nothing.
"I am half-Roman," Marcus said, and the words came out of him as bitter as gall. "My father was a Roman. You can see for yourself the great fortune that his name has brought me."
"I thought your people liked Romans. You're the ones summoning them."
"Romans? Generally, yes. But no one liked my father." With his elbows balanced on his drawn-up knees, his arms raised, Marcus let his head drop between his hands and he shut his eyes.
Esca was silent, and he knew Esca had drawn all the wrong conclusions—a Roman stranger, fathering, perhaps, a bastard son, taking his mother by force—when Esca spoke again. "But your mother—"
Marcus shook his head. "No, she loved him. She was the only one. Her family—everyone—had thought she would make a good marriage, to a rich man, a man of power and wealth. He was a poor Roman trader. He was no one. She would have no other. So they gave her the land, as her dowry, and said she wasn't to speak to them as long as my father lived. He is dead now, but they have not been kind to either of us, in the city."
"I am sorry," Esca said, softly. Had anyone ever told him that before? Had anyone ever been sorry for him?
"It doesn't matter." It did, but there was no changing it. There was no point in thinking about it. "So you see, I am not of some great and noble family. They only wanted me for the envoy because I was tall and could hold a spear well enough."
He felt a light, tentative pressure on his shoulder, and then he looked up to see that Esca had extended his hand, reaching out across the space between them. Esca's long fingers were pale against the dark tunic. Marcus felt the touch as a point of heat, a stab, an arrow-wound. It was shocking, and he wanted more of it. He had no idea what to say.
Before he could say anything, Esca had dropped his hand.
Esca's voice was quiet. "Then, while we are on the subject of names, I will say that I will call you a name you like. If you do not want a Roman name, you should not have one."
How had he known? How had he even known it was a thing Marcus would care about? Marcus had not spoken of that. He wished he had known Esca ten years ago. Before he had given in. Everything could have been different.
Ten years ago, Esca's clan had been pillaging Umbria.
"It's my name now," he said, roughly. "Only my mother calls me Marce."
"As you wish."
"So." Marcus took a breath. "You never answered. Why did your people leave Gaul?"
He could not say what possessed him to ask the question his mother had asked before. He knew he would not like the answer.
Esca twisted away, tense, his eyes wide and shocked, as if Marcus had struck him. It was a long while before he spoke. "We— the harvest was poor. It had been for years. We needed land."
His voice was flat, emotionless. At least Esca did not try to defend his people's actions. Marcus did not think he could have borne that. But it seemed that Marcus could not bear this either, for a vast anger rose in him, and he trembled with the force of it, clenching his jaw, tightening his hands into fists.
"And so you are here for the same thing, eh?" The words came out of him cold and clipped, an accusation. "Ten years later, and now you need our land?"
But Esca did not back down. Esca threw out his hands, lifting his arms to the sky, then to the hills around them. "You will tell me that every inch of that is needed by you, by your people? That you are using it all? That you can spare none?"
Marcus stabbed a finger at him. "You think you can just walk in and take it—"
Esca didn't let him finish. His eyes were wide, pleading, even as his tone was otherwise. "Not taking! We are asking—"
It was very like what Brennos had said. Did Esca truly believe that? How could he believe what he was doing was right? How could he expect them to be happy that the Gauls had come, armed for war? Even he had to see that that was ridiculous.
"You are asking, as you say, with swords in your hands."
"And if we did not?" Esca snapped. "What would you give us if we came to you, unarmed and begging? What would you give me, Marcus?"
Anything you wanted.
The answer was in Marcus' mind instantly, as if the thought had always been there and he had merely never happened upon it until this moment. It was pure and perfectly-formed, an icy shock against his anger. He would— he wanted— O Turan, O goddess! Not this. This could not be a thing he wanted. Friendship with the enemy was bad enough. This was unconscionable. Esca was here as his enemy. Here to invade. Esca was telling him this, at this very moment. And Marcus wanted him. Wanted him more than anyone. He could not care for Esca more than his people, he could not!
O Turan, Venus, Aphrodite, whatever name you wish, what have you done to me?
Marcus shut his mouth, horrified, lest he manage to say any of what he was thinking.
Esca, naturally, took the silence for pointed disagreement. His nostrils flared. "I thought as much."
As Marcus watched, feeling increasingly wretched, Esca pushed himself to his feet, and stared down at him in disdain.
But Esca wasn't listening.
"I see how it is," said Esca, and his voice was quiet now. "I thought— I thought we could be friends."
We can, Marcus tried to say, but the words were stuck in his throat. How could he have thought he could care for a Gaul, an enemy, a man who did, after all, think the lands of Clusium could be his? He must have been mad to ever think such a thing. And how could Esca say that? How dare he?
"You don't understand," Marcus said, anguished. "You're— how can you not know? You're the invaders. How is it that you think I should treat you like any other man?" Of course, his words were for himself: how was it that he, Marcus, could not remember that Esca was an invader? "Do you think this... situation... should make me happy?"
Esca's mouth twisted. "I— I had hoped some of it did. I see now that I was wrong."
It did. Gods. He was damned anyway. He had to say something. "Esca—"
"Thank you for the meal."
He was down the hill before Marcus could say anything else. And then he was gone.
He had ruined everything between them, and he should have rejoiced at that. Esca was not here to be his friend—
Even though Esca had said he had wanted them to be friends—
No, Esca was his enemy. He should be pleased. He should be happy.
He wanted to cry.
And he still wanted Esca.
He sat there until it was too dark to see, and he wished he knew what was the right thing to do.
He was awoken just after dawn—a little earlier than usual—by one of the slaves, urgently whispering at him.
"Awaken, master, awaken!" Spurie said. "There is news already; Avile is come with the Romans! They pushed on and rode all night to be here as soon as they could, it is said."
Marcus was out of bed, and out of the house, as fast as possible. He wanted to see this.
Even if they had not been surrounded by a great crowd just inside the gates, Marcus would have known them. In the time it had taken Marcus to reach the city, the crowd still had not cleared. There was Avile, there, grinning, and a great retinue of slaves, and in the middle of the mass of people, three Romans of rank.
They stood out at first because of their clothes; everything around them was a riot of color, every Clusine dressed in his or her brightest clothing. The Romans, it seemed, were wearing their palest: stunningly white tunics, edged in crimson, and over them their great folded white togas, which they clutched to them as if expecting the crowd to steal their very clothing. No, you could not miss them.
The three of them were of a height and—Marcus squinted—they had rather similar faces. Not identical, no, but they had the same stamp to them, something about the nose and eyes. He would have wondered if all Romans looked the same, but he knew his father had not looked like them.
No, it was how they stood that would have marked them out anywhere, as if they thought themselves so much better than the people who surrounded them.
"So who are they?" Marcus spoke these words mostly to himself; he did not know if anyone had heard.
"They are brothers," a man said, in Marcus' ear. "That was what Avile said. They are the three sons of Marcus Fabius Ambustus, a rich man in Rome. Avile asked their senate for ambassadors, and this was the reply."
Marcus pressed through the crowd, closer and closer. Close enough to hear the Fabii brothers. He had expected that they were still talking to Avile, or perhaps Larth, though, as he looked around, he did not see Larth here yet.
No, they were talking to each other. In Latin. As if they did not expect to be understood by anyone. Why should they have been? Only Latins spoke Latin, after all, and everyone knew how few of them there were. They could not have known Marcus was listening.
"Hideous, eh, Quintus?" one of them said in Latin, smirking.
The youngest one—Quintus—looked over and nodded. "Indeed it is. But, the sooner we kill their wretched barbarians for them, the sooner we can be home, eh?"
Cold fear settled into Marcus' stomach.
"I don't think they wanted us to kill them," the third one pointed out. "Though I can't imagine why not—who'd want those filthy brutes alive?"
Quintus shrugged. "If they didn't want them dead, why ask us? We can finish it for them."
Marcus looked around frantically. All these people, and no one who had heard them understood? Certainly no one showed any signs of comprehension. And if they had known what they said—well, who would dream of telling the Gauls that the promised negotiators were far less neutral than had been assured? Why would the Clusines give up any advantage?
He could not tell the Clusines; it would do no good. Such a message would never be relayed. And he could not tell the Gauls; even if any man other than Esca knew that he spoke Latin, they would not believe him. After all, why would he help them willingly? They would think it a trap or a lie. Only one person would both believe him and be able to pass the message to Brennos.
Esca, he thought, awful, sickened. But Esca wanted nothing more to do with him.
This was not going to be good.
But Marcus, of course, was not invited to any of this; even had he been of higher status, the banqueting was always for married couples. This seemed not to be the case in Rome, because one of the Fabii was looking around, aghast, as both Caile and Seianti fell in with the group walking toward Larth's house.
"We'll tell you all about the Romans," Seianti said, as they passed. "I promise."
"That is kind of you."
Marcus was beginning to think, already, that he wasn't going to like anything he heard about these men.
He stopped in the middle of the street, feeling suddenly alone. He had come all the way to the city today to see the Romans, only to find that he was not needed until the negotiations started again. He did not want to go home again having done nothing, only able to report that they did not want him here. And the one thing he needed to tell—what the Romans believed about the Gauls—he needed to tell to a man who did not care to hear it.
What if the war started here, now, because of this?
There was nothing to be done, and no point worrying about it. He had already misspoken. The damage was done, and Esca would never listen to him. So be it.
Still, he could not stay here all day pretending to have something to do, not when he could certainly help at home. Sighing, Marcus turned and headed toward the gates. As he walked he began to hear the grumble of angry voices, louder and louder, but whatever it was seemed not to be drawing the curiosity of the Clusines; in fact, the closer he got to the gates the fewer people he saw.
"—told you," someone said, very distinctly, in Umbrian, "I am sure the Romans will come to see you soon."
Marcus frowned. It was Avile's voice. Avile was not married and therefore likely not invited to the meal, but it was strange to see him out here.
"You said they were neutral." Brennos. O, gods, the Gauls were here.
"And they are, they are."
There was more disgruntled grumbling. Gods, Marcus would have to go through them to leave.
He turned the last corner and came upon the gate, still guarded. On the other side of the spearmen, holding their weapons vigilantly, was Avile holding his hands out, beseeching a small group of Gauls. But small did not mean unimportant, for here was Brennos, and next to him an older man who was so like Esca in appearance that he must be Cunoval... and Esca.
Esca did not do more than glance at him, coldly, but Marcus' stomach clenched up regardless.
Likewise, Avile barely looked at him. "Aren't you with the Romans, Roman?"
"I can help you." This was about Clusium. This was not about Avile trying to bait him, or Esca trying... anything. He wasn't thinking about that. This was for the good of Clusium. Except it wasn't, really. For Clusium it would be better to say nothing, or to tell Larth. For fairness it would be better to tell Brennos, who was right here, even if Avile would then tell them he was a liar or some such rot. No, this was about Esca. He wanted to tell Esca this to make himself feel better.
He was an idiot.
He would tell a Clusine next, he promised. Larth would hear of it somehow. Just let him tell Esca first.
Marcus swallowed and hoped the Gauls did not see how nervous he was. "Let me talk to Esca."
"Esca?" This from Brennos.
"You know their names?" This from Avile, suspicious.
"You have business with my son?" This, of course, from Cunoval.
Esca himself said nothing.
"Please," Marcus said, his voice cracking and breaking in desperation. "Please, just let me have a few words with Esca. I can explain it to him."
Finally, Esca's face moved, but it was only so that he could grimace, and Marcus almost wished Esca had still remained motionless. "All right." The words were quiet, devoid of feeling.
Marcus stepped through the great gate and motioned to Esca to follow him. They walked together a little ways down the outside of the wall, in the shade of it. Marcus trailed his fingers along the moss between the mortared stones. When he judged they were far enough away, he stopped. Esca faced him, chin held high and proud. His gaze was cold and haughty, imperious.
Marcus took a deep breath. "I apologize." He still believed he was right, of course; how could he not? But he had to apologize, even if he did not think he was the one who should. One of them had to. And Esca had to listen to him, so he had to be sorry. "I am truly sorry about our conversation yesterday. I spoke rashly, and, and—" I could not speak, for I would have answered that I would give you everything— "I am sorry, very sorry, that I have made you believe I would not be your friend. But that is not why I needed to talk to you."
Esca's eyes went wide. He clearly had not expected anything of the sort from Marcus. "I— I— what did you need to say?"
"It's about the Romans."
"What about the Romans?"
"They don't like you."
"And here I thought you were going to tell me something I didn't know." Esca's laugh was bitter. "What do you think we've been trying to tell your man at the gate? Your neutral ambassadors are being welcomed only by you. Of course they don't like us."
"Not like that." Marcus shook his head, holding his hands forth, imploring Esca to understand. "They really, truly don't like you. They despise you. They were talking about it, amongst themselves, in Latin, when they did not think any could understand."
Esca narrowed his eyes. "They did what?"
Marcus related the conversation, as quickly as possible. "So, you see, I do not think they would want you to welcome them. Watch them. Please. I wouldn't be surprised if they were planning something."
Planning something? He had no idea where the thought had come from, and then it was out of his mouth. What could the Romans even be planning? There were only three of them, and a few slaves. Not enough to hurt the Gauls, surely. Perhaps he had been wrong.
But Esca only gave a thoughtful nod. It did not seem like an impossible idea to him, then. "I will definitely be wary. And I will pass on your message to my father."
"Thank you. That is— that is all I needed to say." He couldn't have expected friendship. No, that would be a truly unthinkable idea.
He turned halfway back toward the gates, as if he knew he had to leave but did not want to. As if he were waiting for something from Marcus, some response or signal. And as Marcus watched, Esca folded in on himself, nervously.
"And Marcus?" Esca ducked his head, looking away. "It is I who should be sorry. I... provoked you. I said things I should not have."
"If you would like to try again, to be friends again—" Everything in Marcus twisted up into one great nervous knot. What if Esca said no? What if—?
Esca looked up at him, a hint of relief in his eyes, and the smile on his face was worth it all. Even if he was the enemy.
"I would," Esca whispered, looking about furtively as he spoke, as if he feared that saying it any louder would bring the gods' wrath upon them.
Marcus shifted, awkwardly, from foot to foot. "I have heard the negotiations are not to start again for another two or three days. If you would— if you would like to come visit again? Tomorrow?"
Esca smiled again, and Marcus wanted nothing more than to step closer, to kiss him, to— he couldn't. He couldn't.
Marcus nodded, trembling a little with the anticipation of it. Half of him could not believe he was doing this at all. "You know where I live."
Esca stepped closer, and for the span of several agonizing breaths Marcus thought that Esca sensed the same thing between them, that Esca wanted— but it couldn't be true. Esca merely tilted his head up at him, smiled, and walked away, back toward the gate. Toward his people.
Leaning back against the stones of the wall, Marcus shut his eyes. He was going to save Clusium and keep the peace by himself, or he was going to go mad with lust for a man he could never have. Or perhaps both at the same time.
But he could not have Esca without turning his back on Clusium. Perhaps he had already gone too far; he had told only Esca of the Romans' attitude, and not his own people. That was wrong. That had to be wrong... didn't it? But surely it was a thing Larth and the others would learn soon enough about the Romans; their distaste for the Gauls had to be obvious. He was only providing information. Perhaps the Gauls would trust them more, if they shared all this knowledge. Perhaps the way to peace was to treat them as friends. And perhaps he would tell Larth. Of course he would tell Larth. He had to. But then, would Larth be angry with him for having held the information back? Perhaps there was some way to let him know. He never should have done it. But it had felt right. What if it wasn't?
If only he knew what was right. If only there were an easy, simple decision with a clear answer, a choice he could make without thinking about it.
Marcus had been lying awake for hours. There was no answer to this.
If only he had Esca. In several senses.
The thought, pleasant as it was, brought with it a surge of arousal that was terrifying in its intensity, a great rush of warmth all through him, settling deep and low in his belly. Marcus breathed out, heavily, almost a moan, and he brought the blankets up to his face so none would hear.
It was all too easy to imagine Esca in his mind, smiling up at him again, holding his hands forth again, stepping closer and closer, not running, not this time, oh, yes—
He couldn't. He couldn't do this, and besides, Esca did not want him. Esca had not shown any sign of feeling anything for him past friendship, and tentative friendship at that. There was no possibility of it being more.
Knowing all of that did not, however, stop Marcus from wanting him. He threw the blankets over his face and descended miserably into sleep.
No, of course he was not sure, but he could not very well say that. And Marcus did not understand why his mother would object to Esca's presence again—after all, had she not been the one encouraging him to befriend the Senones?
He smiled. "What could go wrong, mother?" This did not seem to fill her with confidence, for she was still looking at him sternly from across the room, frozen with a bolt of a cloth twisted between her hands. "I am sure it can only be a good thing for the talks, if Esca thinks well of our people."
He had not told her what the Romans had said to each other. He could not. She had loved a Roman man once, after all.
Esca arrived just after noon. Marcus could pick out the shape of him from across the farm—small, but with a proud tilt to his head, a way of carrying himself that he shared with no one else Marcus had ever known. Esca stood there, just beyond the gate, waiting for him, and something about it was so right, that he should be there. Marcus had known the man less than a month, and already it felt to him as if Esca belonged. The feeling was tempting. So very many things about Esca were tempting. He should not want him. He knew he should not.
Marcus walked up and unlatched the gate, and all of his misgivings vanished when Esca smiled at him in greeting. Oh, he still knew all the things he ought to consider—but somehow none of them seemed important, now that Esca was here. Esca did not feel like someone he should be wary of. Marcus only felt... happy.
"So." Esca smiled again, and that was when Marcus realized that Esca was nervous too, the way he was shifting about. "I'm back."
If Esca had been Etruscan, Marcus would have embraced him, a greeting between friends. But he did not know what Gauls did, and the thought of Esca in his arms was wonderful and terrifying, even if the gesture would not be intended to be... that. No, no, he could not do that.
"You are." Gods, he sounded like an idiot. Why was Esca even here? Surely Marcus could not be interesting if he only stupidly repeated whatever Esca said.
Esca's eyes darted up to meet his. "Anything you wanted to show me this time?" He was grinning, brightly, all teeth, and it seemed that his gaze was a dare. But he could not have known Marcus' thoughts. Marcus, in fact, fervently hoped that Esca did not.
Oh, if you only knew. Marcus barely avoided choking in surprise. "Nothing in particular."
It seemed to Marcus, then, that Esca's face fell, just a little. No, that did not make sense. He must have imagined it.
"Goats, then?" asked Esca, still smirking.
Marcus laughed. "If you like goats."
"Oh, I love goats." There was silence, during which Marcus chose not to give voice to the obvious joke, but Esca made a face anyway. "Not like that. I mean, I don't know what your people say about mine—"
Marcus raised an eyebrow. "Do you think I'd really—"
But Esca was shaking his head. "Not you, Marcus. You're kind."
Kind. Esca liked him. Oh, Esca did not like him... in the manner that he wished Esca did, but this was enough, and besides, he would not truly want the other. He would not. It was only a passing desire, for he knew Esca was a Gaul and so they could never... be that. But he liked that Esca liked him. A pleasant warm glow began at the crown of his head and spread out, tingling all down through his body.
Another grin. If Esca noticed the effect this was having on Marcus, he did not say. "Very kind. Have you not been welcoming to me?"
"I—" He could not think of a thing to say. I like you. I want you. "I suppose."
"You suppose?" Esca said it almost slyly, and he took a step closer—
And then, all at once, Marcus became aware of a great commotion, voices calling out in a mixture of languages, figures moving toward them, down the path to the farm. Not the slaves. Not even Etruscans.
Who had he told? Who had Esca told? He wouldn't have believed it of Esca. But he's a Gaul, said Marcus' mind. You know you can't trust them.
Esca turned to look, and his face went white. He had told no one, Marcus knew. He was just as surprised.
"My father," whispered Esca, horrified.
On the other side of the fence, Cunoval, flanked by three other men, was coming ever closer, his face twisted into anger, and he snapped out words that Marcus could not understand.
Esca, still pale, replied in the same language, and Cunoval said something back, just as curt.
"He followed me," Esca said, miserably, in an undertone. To Marcus. "You have to believe me, I didn't tell him where I was going."
A weak smile flitted across Esca's face. It was something.
Cunoval's next words sounded impolite and his gaze was still fierce; Esca snapped his mouth shut. Marcus did not know a word of the Gaulish language, but he knew be quiet! when he heard it.
Then Cunoval turned to Marcus, and his regard was terrifying. It took everything Marcus had in him not to flee. His words, abruptly, were Umbrian. "Clusine," said he, "I am forbidding my son to associate with you. There is not yet peace between our peoples, and I will not allow him to speak of us to you. Do you understand me?"
Marcus' mouth was bone-dry. He tried to swallow. It did no good. "I understand."
"Excellent," Cunoval said, still gravely. "Come, Esca, we will be on our way."
Esca turned to him. His mouth was twitching a little as if he was trying to smile, but he wasn't quite managing it. "Goodbye, Marcus."
"Goodbye." A hot, heavy lump rose in Marcus' throat, and his eyes stung. It was the wind. It must have been the wind.
With unwillingness in every line of his body, Esca let Cunoval and the others lead him away, but he kept looking back over his shoulder, until they had reached the top of the ridge and Marcus couldn't see them anymore.
He stood there shaking, drained. He should move, he should do something... but none of it seemed important.
"Marce?" said a voice behind him, and he jumped, startled. He hadn't even known his mother was there. Of course she had seen it.
She paced about him, frowning. "I don't think you should see that Gaulish boy any longer. Not unless there's peace declared. He'll be trouble for you, otherwise."
When Marcus tried to laugh, it came out sounding like a sob.
At least they did not have to have the talks face-to-face. Larth had given a message to the ambassadors, that they warn them not to attack, for they would be defended by the Romans as well. The Gauls, Marcus thought, did not know that they should fear the Romans. The Gauls had possibly heard little of the Romans, and it was preferable that they meet in peace rather than in war. This was the tone of the message that they had settled on to be given.
Marcus was surprised that they had let him into the diplomatic wrangling after all.
"I thought I was only here to impress the Gauls," said Marcus, and he looked about the atrium of Larth's opulent home half-expecting to find the Gauls draped over the couches. To find Esca. His heart jumped and raced at the thought, even as he knew it couldn't happen. No, the room was full indeed, but full of the nervous elite of Clusium. "Not that I mind, but if they are not here, why am I?"
Cneve laughed and pushed him forward. "You are not as unwelcome as that, Marcus. And this was Larth's idea."
"He thought that, you being part-Roman, might be able to do a better job speaking to the Romans."
Oh. It was that. Of course. Then you should have had me here when you were giving them the message in the first place, Marcus thought. And still—there was a pang of guilt as he thought this—still he had told Larth none of what the Romans had said to each other.
"What, when they bring us a reply?"
Cneve nodded. "The Gauls will not declare war at first, I am sure; they cannot want a fight any more than we do. There will be delicate negotiations ahead."
At that moment the room fell quiet; the Romans had entered.
Larth stared at them as if he could not believe this sight. "An answer already?"
One of the Fabii coughed and stepped forward. His face was unreadable, frozen, like a carving in bronze. "I am charged with reporting the exact words of Brennos, who calls himself chieftain of all the Senones."
Larth motioned with his hand for the man to continue.
"'Although we are hearing the name of Romans for the first time, we believe nevertheless that you are brave men, since the Clusines are imploring your assistance in their time of danger.'"
It was gracious of the Gauls, Marcus though, to flatter the Romans so. He wondered if Esca had passed on the words of the Romans to his father. Had Brennos known what the Romans thought and chosen to be diplomatic anyway? Or was he still in ignorance?
"We do not need to know what they think of you," said Larth, with some sting in his words. "Tell us what they offer."
The Roman, Quintus Fabius, still stared ahead, reciting the words as if they meant nothing. "'Since you prefer to protect your allies against us by negotiation rather than by armed force, we on our side do not reject the peace you offer, on condition that the Clusines cede to us Gauls, who are in need of land, a portion of that territory which they possess to a greater extent than they can cultivate.'"
Well. This was what they had expected. Larth opened his mouth to speak, but Quintus held up a hand, in a casual way suggesting that he expected all men to obey him.
"He spoke further," said Quintus. "'On any other conditions peace cannot be granted.'"
No negotiation. Marcus swallowed. No offers. This was it. Everyone began to talk at once, a great terrified babbling that filled the whole room, but Marcus' mind flashed first on the one person he should never have thought about. How did Esca feel about this? They would fight each other after all. There could be no friendship, not after this. It was over.
"Quiet!" said Larth, but his voice was shaking as he spoke. Then he turned to Quintus Fabius again. "Did they say anything else?"
One of the other brothers spoke now. "He said to the three of us, and I quote: 'We wish to receive their reply in your presence, and if territory is refused us we shall fight, whilst you are still here, that you may report to those at home how far the Gauls surpass all other men in courage.'"
Larth drew in a breath. The room was silent now. It felt as though everything was waiting, everyone was poised, for answers that already been given, for an outcome already decided.
"And what did you say to that, if I may ask?"
Quintus shrugged. "We asked the Gauls what business they had in Etruria."
O gods. Marcus' stomach twisted, and he thought he might be sick. He remembered Esca's face when his mother had asked the question, and how Esca had refused to answer. He remembered asking Esca again, and this was Esca who liked him, Esca who had been kind to him, and even he had left in a rage when the question was put to him with no possibility of avoiding it. Whatever Brennos would have done must have been infinitely worse.
The third brother nodded. "We asked this Brennos what right they had, to demand your lands, from you, the owners, under threat of war."
"And he said?"
"He said," replied Quintus Fabius, whose voice still did not waver in the slightest, "that they carried their right in their weapons, and that everything belonged to the brave."
Marcus put his head down and shut his eyes as the room around him exploded into shouts and cries of outrage.
It was war.
He should move, he knew. He should go somewhere. He should go home. He could not make himself move. What was the point, when everything was going to be destroyed?
An arm settled over his shoulder, and he didn't even look up.
"Hey, Marcus," said Caile. "Come have a drink?"
Marcus lifted his head, which was all he could manage. "The Gauls have told us they will have our land or a battle, and you think I should drink?"
"Yes." This was Seianti.
"We can't possibly send you home looking like that. Think of your mother."
Marcus tried to laugh, but managed a pathetic sort of snort. "She won't be happier if you send me home drunk."
"No, but you'll be."
I won't, he thought, but he let them lead him to their home anyway.
"So," said Seianti, practically pushing him to a seat inside and holding forth a wine-cup, "you wanted to know about the Romans?"
Marcus stared at the wine and did not drink. He didn't want to know anything about anything. He wanted it all to go away. "I suppose."
"They were strange dinner guests," Caile said as he took a seat next to Seianti. "They were well-behaved enough, I suppose, but they were smirking at everything like they thought we were as barbarian as the Gauls."
"They didn't like that there were women at dinner, either. One of them said that." Seianti scowled.
Marcus turned the cup in his hand. "Mmm. They don't have women at their banquets." His father had told him that, once.
"But they cheered up, all right, when they started talking about why the Gauls had come." Caile started to laugh. "Don't think they believed the story, though. The gods know I wouldn't."
Marcus frowned. "What story?"
"Well. You know how Arnth's wife is... unfaithful to him? With Larth?"
"Yes," Marcus ventured, cautious. What did that have to do with anything? "I think everyone in the city knows that. I think even Arnth knows that."
Caile laughed harder. "He does now. Don't tell me you haven't heard, that he paid the Gauls to come make trouble for Larth, because he was angry."
Marcus stared. "That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. And anyway, it wasn't what Esca told—"
He shut his mouth, too late. He wasn't talking about Esca.
"That's your Gaul, isn't it," Seianti said. It wasn't a question. The tone could have meant anything.
"He's not mine." And I'm never going to see him again. Except maybe in battle.
The battle. He had not thought about the battle. Of course he would have to fight. Of course Esca would. He couldn't fight Esca. He couldn't. If they made him, he would— he would— he had no idea what he would do.
"Marcus?" That was concern, now. "Are you well?"
"Fine, fine." He took a sip of the wine, hoping that would look more normal. "So, you were saying, about the Romans?"
Caile began to look a little hesitant. "I do not know if you want to know—"
"You think I haven't heard every awful thing about Romans before?"
"That is different from me saying it."
"You think they can't be trusted," Marcus said, bleakly. "You think they're up to something."
Seianti nodded. "I would say they are as brutish as the Gauls, but if you like one, they can't all be bad."
Caile's look was plainly full of disagreement. She ignored it.
"I liked a Roman too," said Marcus, thinking of his father, so different from these arrogant men. "You don't think they could have lied to the Gauls? Forced this situation?"
"No, they did not seem that bad." She bit her lip. "But they— I think they— I don't know. Something is wrong, with them, and I don't know what."
At least he was not the only one who thought so. But there was no time now, and nothing, nothing could be done. Not before the battle that was sure to come, after Larth gave a reply to the Gauls. The battle the Romans would be there to watch, as they had said the Gauls demanded. But how could any of this benefit the Romans? They were ambassadors. They were neutral. It made no sense.
"I don't know why," said Marcus, hesitantly, "but I know what. Some of it, anyway." And he told the two of them the tale, stumbling over the words, but eventually he got it all out.
Caile stared. "And you didn't... you didn't tell Larth?"
Marcus shook his head. "I didn't know how to, or if he would believe me." The excuse sounded awful. He knew it hadn't been the real reason. But it was part of the truth.
"I will tell him, then," declared Seianti. "I will say I heard it at dinner. And then at least he will know."
It made Marcus feel a little better, but it was not enough. It could never have changed anything, anyway.
Marcus drank down the wine, hardly tasting it. He wished there could have been peace. It was too late, too late for everything.
"Go check on the animals," she said, finally.
This was not what Marcus had expected to hear.
"The animals," she repeated. "Light a torch; it's dark."
"Mother, did you not hear—"
"Of course I heard what you said." She did not seem afraid, to look at her; she only seemed annoyed. And then she sighed, as if she were humoring him. "But they have not declared war yet, you said, and they are still waiting for a response from the Gauls to their second message, which might not even have been for war."
"You were not there. You did not see them. It was for war."
"And so? They are not fighting now." She crossed her arms. "In the meantime, Marce, we still have a farm to run, and it will not benefit anyone if we do not take care of it."
This was how Marcus found himself stumbling across the farm in the dark. Everyone else had gone to bed, and it was only him alone with his now-sober thoughts. Well, him and the sheep. Not that the sheep were very helpful.
Marcus leaned against the fence of the farthest pasture, at the end of the valley, staring up the slope to where the oak spread its branches, all threatening shadows in the dark. He slid down into the dirt, sitting heavily. The lacerna over his tunic, being a very short cloak, did not very much protect him from the wind, but he didn't care. The torch, he had staked into the ground next to him, not that he was using it for anything. From over here he wouldn't even be able to see the house if he turned around—the barns were all in the way—and he found he liked the thought of that. He could pretend, again, for just a moment, that everything was normal, that the Gauls would not invade. That he did not desire one of them.
From somewhere behind him, the sheep at the other end of the pasture bleated noisily, and one of the dogs barked at them.
Marcus didn't bother turning around. "Quiet," he muttered. Stupid sheep, always bleating their fool heads off like there were actually intruders. It didn't help when the dogs joined in to bark at the wind, at a fallen leaf, at nothing at all.
"Shh," a voice breathed, hot in his ear, at the very same time as a hand settled onto his shoulder.
Marcus startled hard, jerking back and away, twisting himself out of the man's grasp, and turning. The flickering torchlight illuminated the crouching, hooded figure, who pushed his cloak back to reveal—
"Esca?" Marcus stared at him in disbelief. Esca was here? Esca couldn't be here. This couldn't be real. He must have fallen asleep. "You're here. How are you here? Why are you here? And what in the world did you do to your hair?"
It was not, perhaps, the first question he had meant to ask, but it was certainly the most salient one. Esca's hair was still long, falling about his face, but it was several shades lighter than it had been when Marcus had seen it last. Now it was almost white, all the color bleached out of it, an incredibly strange thing to see. It looked coarse and stiff; whatever he had put in it to dye it was mostly still there.
Esca chuckled and tucked more of his bizarre hair behind one ear, playing with it between his fingers as if he was not used to it either. In the darkness, the intricate inking on his skin almost blended with the shadows. "All the things to ask, Marcus, and you pick that?" Then the laughter faded from his eyes. "Lime-wash. It is one of the things we do, among my people... when we prepare for battle."
Something inside Marcus twisted and fell. He didn't want to talk about this. He didn't want it to be real. "It will be war, then?"
Esca nodded, solemn, his face still. "It will. The Romans were very firm in the reply they relayed, and Brennos... he felt he had no choice. It will be soon."
"I understand." Except he didn't, he didn't at all. Why did it have to be this way?
Sitting down next to him, Esca continued, his words slow and measured, like he was answering a question. But Marcus had asked none. "We paint our faces too, and the men who have no armor paint their bodies, to look fierce. All of it is meant to inspire fear in our enemies." He raised his head, unsmiling; in the darkness, when he looked away from the fire, his eyes were almost black.
Marcus swallowed hard. "I... I could never be afraid of you, Esca."
The sigh that came from Esca was unexpectedly heavy, as if he had taken a blow to the chest, as if all the air had been knocked out of him. "I know."
"You didn't come here," Marcus said, slowly, "to tell me there would be war. You didn't sneak past your own sentries to tell me that. I would have learned it soon enough. Why did you come?"
But Esca didn't answer. He only turned his head toward the torchlight and did not meet Marcus' gaze. His cloak billowed around him as the wind blew but, though he must have been cold, he did not draw it closer; he only stared off into the distance.
When he finally spoke, it was still not an answer. "We are warriors, my people." Esca's voice was almost too soft to hear over the wind. "I have trained since I could hold a sword in my hand. But I have never fought, not in a real battle."
He was still turned away, and then Marcus realized—the tension in the way he held himself, the way he was not looking up. "I fear this too," he said, and Esca straightened up sharply, as if the words had burned him. "Maybe more than you do. I am no kind of warrior. Oh, I have played at fighting, but I think... if I am asked to the fight, and I think I will be, I will not live through it. Not when I will be facing your veteran warriors. I am not that good."
Esca's head snapped up at that, and in his eyes was anguish. He was afraid for more than himself, now, and Marcus wished he had not spoken. It was not Esca's place to worry about him. It would only make everything worse, if Esca cared about him. Esca could not be allowed to care.
"Will you fight?"
Marcus' mouth was dry. "I have to. The same as you."
It looked for an instant as though Esca was about to cry. His eyes shone too much in the light, reflected too much of the fire. But he bit his lip and drew himself up. "I don't want to fight you."
"I don't want to fight you either," Marcus said, helplessly. There was nothing that could be done. This was the way it had to be. Esca had to know that. Esca had to learn that.
He had to do something.
If he could just make Esca angry with him again, make Esca leave, it would be easier. Oh, it would never be easy, but it would be a thing he could conceive of doing. If Esca were angry, if Esca could be made to hate him, it would be easier to fight Esca's people, knowing that Esca could never care for him. It would be easier for Esca, too. Esca would understand this, afterwards. It had to be done.
He could kiss Esca.
Yes, that idea had merit. Not because it was a thing that Marcus had wanted, regardless—that merely made it unfortunate for him—but because Esca did not. Everyone knew about Gauls. Gauls fucked whoever they liked and were not shy in expressing their interest. Esca did not desire him. He would have said. He would have given some sign, and he had not.
He imagined the horror that would spread across Esca's face after he kissed him. He imagined Esca rising, wordlessly, fleeing into the night. Esca would think of the Clusines and remember that Marcus was repellent, disgusting. Marcus would remember that Esca was the enemy, that Esca hated him now, and he would not feel sorry for him, not in the slightest, as they marched into battle.
Before he could convince himself not to do it, he leaned forward, reaching out to wrap one hand about the back of Esca's head, drawing them together, with his other hand knotted in Esca's tunic so that Esca could not pull back from him too soon, though he did not seem to be trying.
Then he pressed his mouth to Esca's.
For a few shocking moments, while Marcus' heart thundered in his chest. Esca was still against him, absolutely unmoving.
Good. This was what had to happen. It was killing him to do this, but it had to be done. At any moment now Esca would shy away, Esca would move back from him, and Marcus would open his hands and let him go forever—
Suddenly, Esca's arms went around him, hard, and Esca was leaning on him, warm and solid, pressing his body against Marcus' as tightly as he could, his mouth opening against Marcus', his tongue sliding into his mouth, slick and wet, and it was so good, so incredibly good, better than anyone Marcus could ever remember kissing before.
He had only the vaguest feeling, in the back of his mind, that he had thought once that this was a bad idea, and then he overbalanced and they both went over into the dirt, Esca lying on top of him and kissing him and kissing him with no signs of stopping, while all of Marcus' body sang out for him, taut with need, shockingly alive with desire, yes please now now now. He needed to be touched. He needed this more than anything. He needed— he needed—
Marcus twisted his head away with difficulty. "Esca, wait—"
Esca paused just long enough to breathe, grinned crookedly down at him, and then leaned in and kissed him again.
And then Esca did stop, rolling off him and sitting up. His mouth was red, his face flushed, and Marcus stared at him and tried to remember words in any language. He had wanted to say something. He was sure there were words for that somewhere.
Esca frowned. "Did I do something wrong?" His face was all dismay and concern, and there was nothing more Marcus wanted to do than kiss him again.
This... was not at all what Marcus had planned.
"You weren't," Marcus began, panting. "You weren't supposed to like it."
"What do you mean, I wasn't supposed to like it?" Esca glared. "What kind of stupid idea is that?"
"You were supposed to say no." It was beginning to sound strange, when he said it aloud.
Esca was still glaring. "Imagine you're me. Imagine you have a friend, a new friend, who is a wonderful man. Friendly. Kind. Oh, and handsome. Unbelievably handsome. Imagine that you have found yourself very attracted to him since the day you saw him. Then imagine that he kisses you. How in the world do you think I'm supposed to say no to that? Why do you even think I would want to?"
"Oh." Esca... liked him? He had never thought it could be true. But it seemed to be. Marcus hadn't accounted for that in his plan. He had never once thought that the feelings could be mutual. "I didn't think you wanted me," Marcus said, weakly. "I thought it was just me, liking you. And I thought you wouldn't like it, and you would leave, and then when the battle came it would be easier to do... what we have to. If you didn't like me at all anymore."
Esca laughed, though nothing was funny. It was a dry, horrible sound. "I think we've complicated that a little now, wouldn't you say?"
"More than a little."
Then Esca reached out and took Marcus' hand in his own, and for an instant it seemed that Marcus' entire world narrowed to just that touch, the smallest point of warmth.
"I would say," said Esca, slowly, "I would say that since there's no way to make this worse, we could— since we're already— if you wanted—" He was silent for a long while. "I don't even know what I'm saying."
Marcus lifted Esca's hand to his mouth and kissed his fingertips, ever so lightly. He knew what Esca meant.
Esca exhaled, one long shaking breath.
"Like that?" Marcus whispered.
"Yes." Esca's mouth quirked. "Just like that."
Marcus kissed Esca's hand again. He could feel tremors run all through Esca, a little shaking wave, and Esca inhaled sharply, noisily, but said nothing.
He smiled against Esca's skin. "I do want this."
Esca lay down next to him, flinging his cloak over both of them to keep off the worst of the wind. The heat of his body was warmer than any cloak, but Marcus shivered as Esca brought up a hand, gently, to trace the lines of Marcus' face.
"Tell me you've done this before."
Marcus blinked. "Don't you mean, tell you I haven't?"
Of course he had; he was not that friendless. It had not been very often, and it was one of those things Caile did not want to talk about, afterwards. But he did not want to think about Caile now. And what did Esca mean to accomplish, asking him this?
"No, I meant what I said." Esca smiled at him, but his eyes were shadowed in sadness. "I want to know that... that this isn't all you've had. That you've done more than lie in a field with your enemy, in the days before a war. That you know it doesn't have to be like this."
"I have," Marcus said, just so Esca would know, if that would truly reassure him. "But it has to be like this if it's you, doesn't it? And it's you I want."
Esca's fingers moved along the arch of Marcus' eyes, down to his cheek, learning him by feel. Marcus wanted Esca never to stop touching him. "I wish," Esca said softly, "I wish we could have met at some other time, at some place that was not this."
There was no answer to that. Marcus did not even try to reply.
Esca drew him close and kissed him again.
He had thought that Esca, from his words, from his bravery, would be smooth, experienced. Perhaps he was the latter of these things—he had not said—but he was not the former, though even in the awkwardness there was a certain assured confidence to him. Esca's hands slid over Marcus' shoulders, down the length of his body, tangling in Marcus' tunic. His cold fingers brushed against Marcus' bare thigh, and Marcus gasped in surprise at the shock of it.
"Sorry." Esca made to move away, but Marcus grabbed Esca's hands and held them between his palms.
"Don't be." He grinned. "But don't think you're going to put those hands anywhere until they're warmer, either."
"Oh?" Esca's breath was heavy, his eyes wide and dark with need, his voice rough. "Tell me, what shall we do in the meantime?"
Marcus freed a hand and slipped it down, down between their bodies, fumbling a little with the fastenings of Esca's strange clothing. Here Esca was warm indeed, and Esca gasped and pushed up against him, closer and closer, an insistent rhythm.
"We do this."
Esca moaned, wordless, his eyes falling shut, already lost in the sensation. He arched up, gasping out stuttered half-words. Desire ran hot in Marcus, down to the very marrow of his bones, and he realized at that moment that they two were no longer enemies, that they were joined by something far more primal than nations or feuds. Esca was his and he was Esca's, and he wanted nothing more than this. He wanted to hold Esca here, to see his face when all the masks were stripped away from him, to bring him to the edge and take him apart.
Then Esca pushed his hand away. "Wait," he said, low and quiet. "Wait, Marcus, I want to—" Esca's fingers, now warm, were up and under Marcus' tunic, ah, just there, and Marcus groaned at the sudden swell of desire. There was a flash of a smile in the darkness. "There. Perfect."
It was nothing that Marcus had not done before, of course, but with Esca's hands on him it all seemed new, each touch bringing him closer and closer, each sound and movement of Esca's unbelievably arousing, inspiring his own response, urging Esca on, faster and faster, until Esca cried out and came in Marcus' hands, trembling.
Still shaking, Esca pressed kisses to Marcus' mouth, his cheek, his jaw. When he ducked his head he put his lips to the hollow of Marcus' throat, heavy and wonderful, and Marcus could hold back no longer, shutting his eyes and letting his own release take him.
Esca stayed wrapped about him. Marcus lifted his head and kissed him back. He brushed his mouth down over Esca's neck, where he could feel Esca's pulse still pounding, rushing just under his skin.
"You liked that?" Esca asked, as Marcus set about awkwardly wiping them up with the edge of his lacerna. From another the question might have been arrogant, but Esca was clearly teasing.
Of course he liked it. Had that not been obvious?
Marcus smiled. "You know I did."
Esca kissed him again. "I am pleased."
He had not the faintest idea what to say. The first thing in his mind was a wish to do it again, all again, properly in a bed, perhaps in the light where he could see Esca, gods, he was sure Esca would be so beautiful—
But they could not. This was it. This had been it.
They were enemies again, and suddenly Marcus was all too aware that he was here with Esca, Esca the Gaul. It was a wonder no one had come looking for him already. They could not find him with Esca, not like this. They had already been told not to see each other, and he was sure that neither of their parents had imagined this.
Marcus swallowed hard, and tears began to prick at his eyes. He would not cry in front of Esca. "I have to— I think I should go now."
"I know." Esca's voice was raspy. "We both should. We shouldn't have—"
Marcus pushed himself away, miserable, and unsteadily he rose to his feet. "I know that." He didn't want to hear Esca say it, even though it was the truth. Saying it would make it real.
Esca caught at his arm, held him fast. His grip was strong. A warrior's strength. More bruises, Marcus thought. He would remember this in his body as well as his soul.
"But I'm glad we did," Esca said, and he kissed him one last time. His face was wet as well, and Marcus could not have said which of them had been crying. And then he stepped back and looked up, holding Marcus' gaze, his face gone still and serious. "I am my father's charioteer. Stay away from the horsemen in the battle, and you'll never see me again. Please."
It was the best they could do. Marcus nodded.
"Farewell, Esca." It was the last thing he ever wanted to say. It was the only thing he could say. "Fight well and bravely."
"Farewell, Marcus," Esca said, and then he pulled up his cloak and was gone, a shadow disappearing into the darkness.
He had hoped, over the past few days, that something miraculous would happen, that some omen or portent would turn the course of events, that Brennos would back down, that Larth would negotiate. Nothing had, and they had summoned Marcus—and every other man who could hold a sword—to the city.
His hand, braced on his sword-hilt, was already beginning to sweat and cramp, and he had adjusted the buckler on his other arm over and over, fussing with every strap of his borrowed equipment. He was painfully aware that he had no idea what he was doing, out here with the other men who could not be too much more skilled than he was. Larth had offered him a different position, a safer position, in the center with him and the standard-bearers; Marcus had refused. The chieftains would want to go up against Larth, he was sure, and he did not want to be anywhere that they might be, for there Esca would be as well.
It seemed as though nothing had happened for hours and hours but horses champing at bits, men assembling and reassembling into ragged formations, when through the mists there came a great noise, a raucous trumpeting, and the sound of untold numbers of battle-mad voices screaming in frenzied rage.
"That's the carnyx," yelled a voice amidst the Clusine ranks. "The Gauls have sounded their advance! Go, go, and the gods go with us!"
After that, Marcus could not have said, rightly, what happened, not for a long while. All he knew was the terror of it, as they came upon the Gauls, who were nothing so much as a wall across the field. If he had not seen Esca, before, he would have been even more frightened. They wore their hair in white spikes, and their faces were painted in startling shocks of color. Some of them were armored, but those who were not were stripped bare, painted where there was not already ink on their skins, and they were howling as if all the vengeful gods of the underworld were after them. Marcus was dimly aware of the man next to him turning and running.
The Gauls had hooked their strange oval shields to each other, each man's shield overlapping that of his neighbor, and at the very first moment, as Marcus swung out blindly, he thought they had no chance against them. But his sword slipped through a gap, just so, and the man across from him groaned and went down.
I killed him. The thought drifted through Marcus' mind, strangely clear. Today I have killed a man.
But there was no time to think, because the next man was in front of him, lunging. Marcus blocked high, but the man darted low, and then a horrible burning pain tore through his leg. The other was unprotected now, and Marcus twisted away and stabbed heavily, as hard as he could, the point of his sword aimed at the spiraling ink on the Gaul's back. The pressure on his leg slackened, and the sword fell out of the other man's twitching grip. Blood arced up over Marcus' hands, dripped down his thigh, and he did not know how much of it was his. He could stand. He could walk. He could still fight. Good enough.
So he fought, and he fought, twisting and blocking and hardly looking up. All his mind was focused on the dance of it, stepping here, weaving this way, getting past the guard of another man and another. For him it was an unsteady rhythm. He had some training, certainly—they all had—but training was nothing compared to the reality of it. His arms ached from the weight of the weapons. His leg burned. He only hoped he could hold on until the end of it.
Then there were no more opponents. The immediate danger was gone and all at once he staggered unsteadily, his wounded leg bowing underneath him, as if his body had already judged the fight over. Not yet, he thought. He had no idea how long he had been fighting, but he had not heard a retreat called.
"Come on," he hissed to himself, through gritted teeth. "You can do this."
Marcus lifted his head and saw that the field about him was mostly empty, the few men around him lying unmoving in the dirt. The ground had a little rise, not too far away, and up that slope there was more fighting still going on in the distance. Then a small figure, half-hidden by the mists, stumbled up over the rise, sword in one hand, huge Gaulish shield in the other.
One more. Just one more. He could kill one more.
Then the man stepped closer and it felt as if Marcus' heart had stopped.
If he had not seen Esca the other night, he did not think he would have known him at all now. Esca's hair was nearly pure white in the sunlight, swept back from his face and gathered up like a horse's mane, pulled high into spikes. His face was painted in frightening jagged slashes of blue and green on his forehead, under his eyes, swirling across his cheekbones. He had taken a few wounds: his head had been laid open at the hairline and blood trickled down the side of his face, stained his hair. He still wore all his golden jewelry, and with it a mail-shirt, spattered with more blood. The ink on his hands was covered in streaks of gore, and that, Marcus thought, was far more fearsome than any of the paint. The sword in his hand did not waver, and Marcus did not know whether Esca had recognized him.
You weren't supposed to be here, he thought, betrayed, agonized. You promised you would be with the horsemen. But Esca had clearly been unhorsed; the ends of a charioteer's long reins were still wrapped about his waist.
"Esca!" he cried out, the words torn from him. Even as he spoke, he knew it would have been better to say nothing, but he knew he had no way to silence the cry ripped from his heart.He watched as Esca's head snapped up, as Esca froze in place for long moments. The sword that had been held in Marcus' direction now trembled, and he knew Esca had seen him.
In a few paces, the gap between them was almost closed. Esca's eyes were wide, his breath shallow.
When he spoke, Esca's words were barely above a whisper. "I don't want to do this." Under the blood and paint, his face was as pale as the dead.
It felt as though someone else were in Marcus' body. Someone else was holding a sword, pointed at Esca. Someone else raised their shield.
"Then don't. Then run." He knew what Esca would say in response, but he had to say it.
Esca's eyes darted back and forth across the field, and Marcus knew Esca saw the same thing he did—they were not alone. Men were still fighting, here and there, among the bodies, among the remains of the Gaulish shield-wall. Someone would see them. They were likely being watched now. And even if either of them deserted, where would they go? The ground was bare, and there was nowhere to run to, nowhere that would hide them, not when either side would happily kill them in their dishonor.
Esca's voice came out of him strangled, half-choked. "You know I can't. Can you?"
Marcus was a Clusine. Esca was a Gaul. No matter what else there was between them, it came down to this. It would always have been thus between them. There was no way to care for a Gaul more than one's own people. He should have known that.
Marcus shook his head. "I cannot either." He could not be a coward. He could not run.
Esca stared at him for long moments and then... threw his shield away. But only his shield. Marcus watched the huge ungainly thing fall; he watched Esca tighten his grip on the sword.
"I already have armor," said Esca. "You have nothing but that shield, and if I keep mine I will surely—"
Kill you. He didn't need to finish the sentence.
Marcus raised an eyebrow, or tried to. He felt the mask of blood and dirt crack on his skin. "You'll kill me anyway," he said, quietly.
"But I will never live with myself if I give you no chance at life." Esca's face was like stone, and he raised the sword in salute. "I'm sorry, Marcus."
And then he attacked.
Marcus threw himself sidewise and missed Esca's lunge by no more than a hairsbreadth. Terrified, he swung his shield up and around to face Esca, pressing forward with a slow, heavy attack that Esca easily dodged. He shifted forward, remembering too late that his leg couldn't take the weight, and stumbled.
Panting, he got his feet under him again. "I'm fine."
The next attack was a flurry of blows, one two three, that Marcus blocked easily, on his shield. They were light, so light his arm was not even jarred. Esca danced back quickly, his teeth bared, and that was when Marcus realized two things. One, Esca was a far better swordsman than he was. Oh, Marcus was taller, but the long Gaulish sword nearly made up the difference in reach. Esca was faster, as well, and he knew how to use his size to his advantage.
Two, Esca was toying with him.
Esca's sword came slicing in under his guard, a move that could have killed him, but just as quickly twisted away. He'd pulled the blow. Esca didn't want to hurt him. He must have thought he was being kind, but Marcus could not endure such kindness. He would be dead just the same in the end.
Marcus jumped backwards to avoid the next swing and felt his leg crumple as he landed, sending fresh, twisted pain all through his nerves.
"If you don't kill me," he breathed, "one of your friends will. Are you going to draw my death out until then? That's cruel."
The sword-point dipped a little. "I don't know what else to do." Esca's voice was hoarse. Blood and sweat streaked Esca's face, and Marcus wondered if some of it was tears. "I don't— I never wanted—"
Didn't he know? This was the way it had to be.
Marcus stabbed forward, thinking he would catch Esca on the mail-shirt, but he had not guessed the direction Esca would go in. The wrong one. Esca hissed as a bright line of blood beaded across his arm. Not his sword-arm, although maybe it would be better if it had been. Then it would be over.
The wound seemed not to pain Esca, for he only leaned to the side, then turned and lashed out, catching the edge of Marcus' shield in a heavy blow that managed to rattle his arm up to the shoulder, with such force that Marcus had to struggle to hold onto the shield with numb fingers. He was so tired. The only thing keeping him on his feet was the awful, certain knowledge that he would be dead if he faltered.
He stabbed, wildly, and missed, but he missed only because Esca took several ungraceful steps to the side. Esca was slower now, too; Marcus could hear his breath rasping, harsh and ragged.
But Esca must have summoned up some reserve of strength, because he attacked again. Marcus took the blow on his shield—this one was even slower, easy to see—and then abruptly shoved back hard, forcing Esca's arm up and away. Esca staggered, took a few shaking steps backwards—and went down.
The sword tumbled out of Esca's hand as he fell.
Esca lay on his back in the bloody mud, his chest heaving, fingers scrabbling frantically for a weapon.
Without thinking about what he was doing, Marcus had his sword at Esca's neck. The blade was bare inches from his skin.
Esca stared up at him and stopped struggling, lying as still as if Marcus had already killed him. His mouth parted in a horrific grimace that might once have been a smile; Marcus saw the flash of bright blood on his tongue as he licked his lips. His throat worked and he swallowed, tilting his head back, all weakness exposed.
"Go on, then." The words were quiet, but Esca's eyes were bright, and Marcus did not see fear in them, only resolve, resignation. "Make it clean. If you ever— if you ever cared, Marcus, make it quick."
Ask me for your life, he wanted to say, and he remembered, with a hideous clenching in his chest, that the Gauls had said that to him, when Esca saved him. If Esca asked, if Esca begged, he would do it, he would spare him, even though they were to take no prisoners. The Gauls were to be given no mercy, but if Esca so much as said please, it would break him.
He also knew that Esca would never ask. Esca was too proud to beg for anything, even his own life, and he would die for it.
Esca's pulse jumped in his throat, just under the shadow of the blade, and Marcus realized then that Esca was afraid after all. I kissed you there, he thought. And with that thought, all the will to fight drained from him, leaving him empty and hollow.
He could not do this.
Let them call him a coward. Let them call him weak. Let him be killed for this. But he would not kill Esca.
Shaking, he pulled the blade away and sheathed it, not caring that it was still bloodied. It was no worse than the rest of him. Esca watched him, wide-eyed.
"I—" he tried. "You—" Now was not the time to talk of feelings. "You saved my life once," he said, finally. "Now I give you yours."
"I never asked for it."
What would happen to them? He could not think about it. He watched Esca scramble to his feet, sword in hand. What could they do now? He did not know if any of the men around them had seen. He thought perhaps they had.
"If you will kill me now for it," Marcus said, "then kill me." Esca owed him nothing else. The honor-debt had been repaid.
Esca stared and did not move. Marcus had no idea what he would do. A great calm spread over him. Perhaps Esca would kill him. He had rather die than kill Esca.
Just then there came a noise from afar, a cacophonous trumpeting, and something about the intensity of the battle cries had changed.
"That's the retreat." Esca stared at him in disbelief. "They're sounding the retreat."
Marcus waited for Esca to turn, to go, to flee. All at once Esca was embracing him, hard, his arms around him, his head tucked against Marcus' neck, and he was shaking. The hilt of Esca's sword dug painfully into Marcus' back. Esca smelled terrible, quicklime and gore. Marcus didn't care.
"Weapons down! Don't follow them!" someone was yelling, distantly, in Etruscan, but Marcus found he didn't care about that either.
Esca was still trembling, whispering things that weren't words against Marcus' skin, and Marcus swayed against him, precarious, his leg beginning to complain more the longer he stood. He ignored it.
"Alive, alive," Esca was murmuring. "We're both alive."
Marcus would make his own prayers of thanks later. He remembered the sacrifice, the one that had gone ill and then well. Perhaps this was what it had meant. The Gauls had attacked, and then retreated. It had been good, it had been good after all.
He brought up his hand to Esca's white hair, tightening his aching fingers against Esca's scalp. "I cared. I always cared."
The noise Esca made sounded like a sob; Marcus could not see his face. "I know. I never would have—" He didn't finish the sentence. It didn't matter. Marcus knew it well enough.
The once-distant shouting had become louder, and, Marcus realized, some of it was in Gaulish. And some of it sounded like—
"They're saying my name." Esca pulled away from him, regret written all over his features. "Me? Why do they want me? Marcus, I have to go."
Marcus stepped back. "Go. Run. Live."
Esca picked up his shield and ran. He looked almost like any other Gaul, but Marcus knew he would never mistake him for anyone.
Then he realized the Gaulish voices were still louder, and a man was charging at him, apparently having taken the opportunity to fight one last Roman in the retreat. The Gaul was massive, taller than Marcus, and there was another man of equal size just behind him.
No, Marcus thought. I did not survive all of this only to die here.
The man lashed out with his sword and Marcus ducked and crouched; the blow sailed harmlessly over his head and the Gaul continued on at a dead run. Marcus guessed the man wasn't going to spend any more time than he had to.
I made it. I did. I made it, we made it—
He tried to push himself up from the crouch, but his leg, taxed beyond endurance, simply didn't respond. He could do nothing but watch the man's companion run toward him, watch the heavy shield flash out toward his unprotected face.
Then there was only darkness.
Then he remembered, and knowing was almost worse. The battle. The fighting. He had to get back.
He tried to push himself up. His vision went white and a stabbing pain shot through his head. At once there were hands on his chest, pushing him back down.
"Careful, careful!" a voice said, urgent and accented. Marcus squinted up at the blurry face. It was that physician Aetion, the one who had come all the way from Great Greece. "Stay down, or you'll hurt yourself more."
He strained up against Aetion's hands, but could not seem to shift him; strange, for he had not remembered Aetion being so large or strong. "But the battle— I have to—"
"The battle's been over for days," said Aetion, patiently, in the tone of someone who has been telling the same thing to many men.
Marcus stared. "Days?"
Aetion's expression was grave. "Three of them. Wasn't sure you'd wake up, in the end. You thank the gods, boy, you thank them that your head is so hard." He chuckled a little.
"My head?" Marcus reached for his face; his fingers brushed across a great swollen lump and he whimpered a little at the pain of it. It hurt more than his leg. "What about my leg? Will I walk?"
Aetion waved a dismissive hand. "Your leg? That's nothing. Oh, you'll have a pretty scar, but there's little to worry about there. But you're staying here where I can keep an eye on you and that skull of yours. Before you ask, Marcus, I will send to your mother and let her know you are on your way to being well. Do not worry about her."
She was not the only one he was concerned about.
"And you are far better off than Avile," the surgeon added.
He did not not have it in himself to be sad for Avile, though he would not have wished him ill. "What of him?"
"Lost the leg," said Aetion, grimly. "And that's all you need to know. Just go to sleep."
There was a haze of sadness in him, and he was not sure whether he wanted to cry after all. It must have been the wound.
"Tell me about what else I have missed, then," Marcus pleaded, "if you will not let me leave. Then I will sleep."
The look Aetion favored him with suggested that he had already told this story several times over as well. "The Romans have left, and good riddance to them. They were lucky to make it out with their lives. Some of the Gauls, I heard, wanted to march on Rome right away, but they are waiting for word from their own ambassadors, sent to beg for punishment. At any rate, the Gauls are not a threat to us. Not any longer. Just to Rome. Good news, eh?"
What? Maybe he was worse off than he had thought. This was making no sense whatsoever.
Marcus frowned. "The Gauls, marching on Rome? What's going on?"
Aetion stared back, just as confused. "You were at the battle. That friend of yours, Caile, he said he saw you still fighting as the Gauls were retreating. Don't you know?" His face twisted in concern, possibly at the state of Marcus' memory.
"The Gauls were the ones who hit me in the head, while they were fleeing," Marcus pointed out. "I don't even know why they retreated. They... they could have had us. But they left."
They're saying my name, Esca had said, and Marcus shut his eyes until the thought receded.
"That would be the fault of those idiot Romans. No one knows how they did it, or why they did it, but they ended up in the fighting. No one even recognized them until— there was the Gaulish chieftain, heading right for the standards. This Quintus Fabius, he cast a spear at him. Went right through him. Died there and then. And then the Gauls realized it was a Roman who had done it."
"The Romans were in the battle," Marcus said, stupidly, as if by saying them he could make the words make more sense. They had been supposed to be neutral. No wonder the Gauls were furious with Rome. How could they do such a thing? It went against the law of nations. No one should have done this. "They really killed Brennos?"
But Aetion was shaking his head. "Not Brennos. Different man. Cu-something. I've forgotten the name now."
No. No, no, no. Not this. Marcus' stomach twisted sickeningly. He knew the answer.
Let him say it was any other man. The names were all so similar, after all. Let it be anyone else. But he knew it was true: Esca's own people had been asking for him, because his father had—
"That's the one." Aetion snapped his fingers. "You must be on the mend; you know it better than I do."
Esca. O, gods, Esca. Sick and exhausted, Marcus tried to push himself up. He had to see Esca. Three days. Cunoval had been dead for three days. What if Esca was all alone in his grief? What if he acted rashly in his sadness? What if he thought Marcus hated him, not to come to him now?
"I have to leave."
Somehow Aetion's hands were on his shoulders, holding him down. "What did I just tell you? You're not going anywhere."
"Get some rest, Marcus." He held forth a clay cup, filled with a bitter-smelling liquid. "And drink this."
He knew if he did not drink, Aetion would force it on him, so he gagged and drank the whole cup as fast as he could. And it was not much longer before his head was clouded from the medicine, the pain receding into a strange confusing fog, where nothing hurt, but everything about it was wrong. Aetion's dark face swam in front of him, warping and shifting into the man Marcus desperately wanted to see.
I'm sorry, he thought. He did not know whether he spoke aloud. I will see you soon, if you even want me. Only hold on. I'm trying.
Marcus did not know what would become of him when they left.
He saw their tents and cook-fires stretched out below the walls, as he stood on the little ridge of the path leading away from the city, to his farm. Aetion had finally released him that morning. As promised, he could walk without a limp, and his head was mended at last; it had been many long days of healing, and he knew he had been missed at home. He should go.
All he could think was that Esca was somewhere in that encampment. Was he wracked with grief? Was he alone, disconsolate? Perhaps he had died with his father, sacrificed to please their alien gods. Who was to say the Gauls did not have strange customs like that? No, he was being ridiculous—that could not be true. Nevertheless he hated to think of Esca, alone and in mourning.
No one had been there for Marcus when his father had died.
But if Esca had wanted him, he would have said. He would have come. There would have been word.
He turned away and went home.
His mother was happy to see him, and indeed Marcus was happy that she was well, happy to be home at last, but a vague sense of unease gnawed at him and would not stop. He did not quite fit here, not anymore. He had fought for Clusium—and then turned from Clusium at the end, though only Esca would ever know that, he hoped—and now it seemed odd, confining, that his world should be once again reduced to the size of the farm.
His mother did not quite seem to know what to do with him. At first she treated him with a terrifying kindness, but then, eventually, she left him alone. Though Marcus did not much like that either, he could not have said what he did want. There was one day he had spent mending the fences, at peace, lost in the work and a job done rightly, and he almost felt human again. But then he was done, and he had to return and face his mother, the slaves, everyone, and the awful feeling returned.
"Marce," his mother said to him, that night. "I was wondering, if you were unwell, if you wanted to talk about—"
He shook his head. How could he talk about what he could not even understand? "No. I am fine."
He had thought she would leave at that, but she did not. She only stood there, quietly, and then put her thin hand to his face. It was a comfort, but not enough of one. "It will be well, Marce. Whatever you did in the battle, whatever you had to do—do you think you are the first man to suffer for it, afterwards?"
He looked down at her, in silence. How did she understand any of it?
"The healing will be slow, but it will heal." She bit her lip. "Your father was— he was not always a trader, I think, before I met him, and he would not speak of what he had done. But eventually, for him, it was in the past."
It could not be for Marcus, though, not while the Gauls were still here. That wound was raw. But soon, he supposed, they would leave, they would march on Rome or return home or do whatever it was they were going to do, and life would move on. Esca would forget about him. But they had had this much. It would have to be enough.
Marcus tried to smile. "I will be fine."
He was lying. But he was alive, and that was good enough.
"There's a Gaul at the gate asking for you," one of the slaves said.
His heart leapt into his throat, and he practically ran to the gate, as fast as he could, to see... a stranger.
He had been silly, thinking it would be Esca. Perhaps Esca had forgotten about him already. Perhaps he was wholly consumed, still, by his grief. Perhaps Marcus had been no more than a diversion, an enemy to toy with. Perhaps that was all it had ever been. He should not have hoped for more. Esca had made him no promises.
The Gaul stared down at him from high on his horse; there was another mount, bridled and saddled, tied to his. "You are Marcus, the half-Roman, whose mother is Velia?" His accent was harsh and his words were slow.
What was this about?
Marcus nodded. "I am he."
The Gaul's expression did not change. "I am instructed to inform you that our chieftain wishes to meet with you."
Brennos? What in the world would Brennos want with him? As far as Marcus knew, Brennos did not even know his name. Still, it was good to be polite to the Gauls, though they were no longer their adversaries. And he was no one; he could not very well refuse a chieftain's request.
The horses stamped and snorted at each other. The messenger stared at him as though the answer were obvious. "Of course now."
He heard footsteps on the path behind him and turned to see his mother, eyeing the man warily. "Marce, what is this?"
"He says I am summoned by their chieftain." He patted his mother on the arm; it did not seem to relax her. "We are at peace. Don't worry. I'll be back soon."
With very little ceremony, the man untied the horse, Marcus mounted up—his leg only protested a little—and off they went.
The Gaulish encampment seemed to have expanded since he had seen it last, and the sentries become more lax. Instead of trading watchwords or anything of the sort, Marcus' escort only waved at a spearman, who waved lazily back. And as he passed through the outer edges of the camp, he saw with some surprise that there were not only Gauls there. No, there were Clusines, negotiating cheerfully for the food and drink they seemed to be selling. There were even a few men Marcus knew playing some sort of dice-game in the dirt, with an inked warrior. He thought, too, that there might be other, more intimate negotiations going on in the shadowed tents, to judge by some of the noises and the laughter.
They were not invaders anymore, Marcus realized. They were neighbors, albeit temporary ones. The strangeness jarred him. Here he was, surrounded by Gauls, all of them the fiercest warriors, who only a few days ago would have happily killed him. But now they were in high spirits, going about their business, ignoring him in their midst.
Presently they came to the middle of the camp, where there was a collection of structures halfway between buildings and tents. They were grander than the other tents had been, and Marcus assumed that they belonged to the various chieftains. The largest one, in the very center, was likely Brennos', and he waited for the messenger to lead him there. Instead the man led him to one of the tents at the side, dismounted, and handed the reins of his horse to yet another man. Confused, Marcus did the same.
"Wait here," said the messenger, curtly. "I will let the chieftain know you have arrived."
He pushed back the leather flap and disappeared within the tent. Marcus still did not understand a word of Gaulish, but he thought he heard something that might have been his own name, followed by a murmured reply.
The messenger returned. "He will see you now."
Was Marcus so important that Brennos would want to see him instantly? This made no sense at all. Well, there was only one way to understand. He took a deep breath and stepped inside.
The tent was a cool, shadowed thing, as large as a good-sized room or two; it seemed to have been partitioned into two with drapes. It was a busy, crowded place, full of furniture and armor, and all manner of things, as well as a pair of warriors at the door who glared balefully.
Then the man on the chair in the middle of the room raised his head and smiled.
"Oh, Marcus," said Esca, and the light in his eyes was brighter than anything. "You came."
He felt weak all over and did not think he could blame it on his injured leg. He could only focus on the most insignificant little details: Esca's hair was still bleached, but it was no longer pulled back; his face was bare of paint now but the cut on his forehead was surely going to scar; he wore bright, rich clothing and an entirely different array of jewelry, more elaborate than Marcus had seen him wear before. And he was smiling, still smiling, as though Marcus were the best thing he had seen in his life.
"I am sorry it took me so long to arrange to see you," Esca was saying, apologetically, from what seemed like a very great distance away. "There have been many things that needed my attention." And then he really seemed to see Marcus, to see the stunned expression that Marcus was sure he wore, because his face sharpened with concern. "Gods, Marcus, sit down somewhere before you fall down. You look as if I'm visiting from the underworld!" He waved a hand, annoyed, at the men by the door. "The rest of you, out!"
While the men grumbled and exited, Marcus dropped gratefully into a chair.
"I did not think," he began, weakly, "I did not think it would be you."
Esca's smile was gentle. "No? Did you think I'd forgotten you?"
Marcus bit his lip, not wanting to say yes. "Your man, he did not say who wanted to see me, only that the chieftain did. And I could not imagine what need Brennos had of me."
"Oh." Esca sighed. "Well, as you see, there are several of us." He paused. "I am—I was—my father's eldest child, and so I am chieftain of our clan now."
Esca looked away, his face shadowed, and Marcus stared at him and could only see how wretched Esca was, how all of this had been thrust upon him when he had likely thought his father would live for years to come. He looked worn, and sad, and very, very alone.
"And how are you?" Marcus asked, carefully, with as much kindness as he could.
Esca's voice crackled into a snarl; his eyes blazed fire. "The Romans murdered my father. How do you think I am?" And then at once he withdrew, as if he felt nothing at all, and that was even more terrifying to watch. "I am sorry, Marcus; I should not—"
"You should." Marcus interrupted him. "Whatever you want to say, say it, and whatever you want to feel, feel it." He took a breath. "I was a child when my father died, but I did not weep. I thought it would make me stronger. I thought it would make me a man. It only ate at me, inside."
Esca stared at him, mute, his face frozen.
"Whatever you need to do," Marcus tried. "I do not know if I can be of help, but—"
"I want the Romans to burn." Esca's tone was calm, rational, measured, in contrast to his desires. "They are cowards, oathbreakers. I want them to die, as they killed my father. We sent ambassadors to Rome, asking the Fabii to be punished for their crimes, for violating the law of nations. And we have had their news back, just today. Do you know what they did?" His voice rose now, on his final words. "Do you know what their own people did to them?"
Marcus did not dare breathe.
"They're honoring them." Esca spat out the words. "They're rewarding them. They're consular tribunes now. I understand that is a sort of Roman honor, I am told, that they are conferring upon them. A rare and lofty title. Upon the murderers."
Any sympathy he could offer would be hollow, so empty, in the face of this injustice. "Esca—"
"And they call us the barbarians." Esca gave a little smile, his face still haunted. "We are marching on Rome. Soon. Very soon now. We will of course ask the other cities on our way south, but Brennos tasked me with asking for... assistance, in the fight, before we left." Strange, he looked so nervous as he said it.
"You must know that I cannot speak for Clusium." Esca should have asked Larth, and he knew it. He should have known it.
But Esca just smiled again. "I know. I will ask your leader tomorrow. But first I am asking you, personally." He held out his hand. An entreaty. "Come with me, Marcus. Fight with me. Help me take Rome."
Marcus breathed in, sharp and surprised. He could go with Esca. They would not have to be parted. He would be at Esca's side, as his ally. But then, suddenly, he pictured his father's face, stern and disapproving, a child's memory of anger, and all his hope twisted and withered. If his father were alive now— if his father had known of this—
"You know my father was Roman," Marcus began, and then he stopped. He had no idea what else to say. If he kept talking, he did not know whether he would accept Esca or deny him, and it frightened him that he did not know.
Esca nodded. He did not seem at all fazed. He only steepled his fingers together and began talking, mostly in the direction of his hands, his words slow and rehearsed, as if he had practiced what to say. "I know. And I am not asking you this lightly." He lifted his head and his gaze was intent, focused, like an aimed arrow, ready to be loosed.
Marcus could not look away.
"You see, I have had a great deal of time, over the past several days, to consider what I might say to you. How I might convince you to join me. And I have found that you are—" he smiled, a quick, apprehensive grin— "very important to me, so I came up with several reasons I would like to relate."
He was important to Esca? Him? Marcus smiled back, suddenly shy. Oh, he knew Esca must like him, but it was a different thing entirely to hear him say it. "Tell me, then."
"Mmm." Another smile. "I rejected all but one of them, in the end, but I will tell you anyway." Esca leaned forward. "First—and I'm afraid it wouldn't be much of an enticement for you, but it's very good for me—is the simple fact that, as you said, you are half-Roman. You speak Latin better than any of our men, and where we are going, that will be an advantage."
He was right; that wasn't much of a reason. "I've never been to Rome."
"Neither have I. But it would be better to go with a Latin speaker than without one." Esca shrugged. "I did say there wasn't much for you, with that reason, but I want to be as honest as possible, and that includes letting you know what I'd get out of it."
Esca would be a brilliant diplomat with a little practice. Marcus was in awe. "Fair enough. What next?"
Esca spread his hands wide, casually. "Oh, the traditional reason. Plunder. I know you are not poor, but think of bringing the spoils home. Surely gold would ensure your family's prosperity. It couldn't hurt, eh? But I know enough to know that you are not a greedy man; I do not think this would move you."
Marcus shrugged. "I won't turn down the gold, if you're offering. But you are right. On its own it would not convince me. You have other reasons?" He was curious to know what else Esca could have come up with.
There came a brisk nod, and Esca leaned back a little, thoughtfully. "This one, I thought, could convince you: honor."
"What of it?"
"The Romans broke the law of nations. You know it as well as I do." Esca's face was animated, fierce with passion. "They have done a dishonorable thing, and if they will not right their own wrongs, it is for us to do in their place. We will show them that we are men of strength and virtue. We will show them how highly we hold honor, when they do not. And then you may tell your people how noble the Gauls are, after all." He held out his hands again, imploring now. "I know your father was a Roman, Marcus, but I also know that he must have been a man of great honor himself, because he raised you to hold it dear. And though I never knew him, I think he would understand that the deed you would go to do was greater than any loyalty to his city." Esca grinned. "That, and he would forgive you because he was never only a Roman, if he moved here to live his life among Etruscans." He paused and then grinned sheepishly. "Rasenna, I mean."
Yes, Marcus was about to say. Yes, Esca, I will go. How was it that Esca understood him so?
"But that is not the final reason I would give you."
Marcus stared. "What do you mean, it isn't? For that, I will say—"
Esca held up his hand, and Marcus fell into bewildered silence. "I knew it would convince you," he said, very quietly, "but I didn't want it to be the reason. Call it selfish. Call me foolish. The gods know I have." He ducked his head, smiling an ashamed little smile; his hair swung into his face. "But I wanted you to come because— because you wanted to be with me. And I know I cannot ask it of you. But I wanted it. I thought— I thought you should know."
He knew what he had to do. He was out of his chair in an instant, crouching by Esca, so their heads were nearly level. Slowly, carefully, he tipped Esca's chin up with one finger and kissed him.
"Yes," he whispered.
Esca opened his eyes. "Yes?" His voice was full of astonishment.
Marcus smiled. "Yes."
Their lips met again; this time the kiss was heavier, more insistent, and when Esca pulled away his breathing was hard.
"I was hoping," Esca began, "that if you didn't have anywhere to be urgently, that I might convince you to... stay with me. Today. For a little bit." His eyes flicked over to the other half of the room, behind the curtains; Marcus hoped there was a bed there.
"I think you will find I am already convinced." He pressed a kiss to Esca's cheek.
There was still loneliness in Esca's eyes, but nothing like the awful hollowness of before; Esca's smile was unfeigned happiness.
"One more thing first, then," Esca began, shifting Marcus off him as he stood. Marcus watched with interest as Esca went to rummage through a pile of sacks in the corner. "Hmm. It's here somewhere. I have had the most wonderful fantasies about the two of us in Rome, do you know?"
"Oh?" Marcus was rapidly developing even more interest. His blood started to heat at the half-formed, shapeless thoughts. Esca had been thinking about him. Them. Together.
Esca laughed. "Not like that. Well, all right, like that toward the end of it." He turned back, holding something gold and shining between his hands. "I was imagining the two of us at some senator's villa, drinking our stolen Roman wine. The finest vintages. And I would drape you in gold and jewels. All the gold." He smiled. "And I would admire you, just so."
He held out his hands. Between them was the torc he had been wearing when they had met, the one he had worn all along, with the hounds at the end of them. Marcus stared, stunned into silence.
"What I wear now belongs to me by right, as chieftain. But this one is mine to give. And I would give it to you."
It was finer than anything Marcus had ever owned. He stared at it in disbelief, wondering somehow if all of it was a trick, if Esca would laugh and snatch it away.
"Yes, you." Esca was beginning to look nervous. "Say yes, Marcus?"
"Yes," he repeated. Gods, Esca wanted him. Esca really wanted him—
Esca twisted the ends of the torc apart in a practiced motion, then he reached up with both hands. Marcus felt the thing settle about his neck, heavy and solid and real. Esca was staring at him now with a kind of awe writ across his features; his eyes were wide and blackened with desire.
"You look very handsome," Esca said, his voice low and dark. "And you will look very fine indeed wearing this. And nothing else. In my bed."
And then Esca pulled his head down and kissed him and kissed him. Marcus was overwhelmed by sensation, by everything, but then a thought entered his head and would not leave it. He had to ask. "Esca?"
Esca lifted his head, obviously reluctant. "Mmm?"
"But what if someone asks me how I came by it? They will know I never had it before your people came."
"Ah, Marcus, I don't know!" He started laughing; clearly some answer had come to him. "No, wait, I do know. Tell them— tell them you despoiled a Gaul."
Marcus frowned. "But I didn't."
"Oh?" asked Esca. Then he felt Esca's hand close over his wrist, drag his hand until his palm was against the curve of Esca's flesh, sliding low past his waist, an offer and a promise together. "You're about to."
She had said yes.
Three days later, Esca was at the farm gate, with two horses. He had provisioned both of them for war; there were arms and armor for Marcus as well.
His mother hugged him, hard. "I know you are your own man now, Marcus. You want to see the world, as your father did. I know I cannot keep you here forever. Only fight well, and live. And if you will not stay, at least visit when the fighting is done."
"I cannot guarantee he will be safe," Esca said to her. "But we have the force to conquer the Romans, so we can only pray for the favor of the gods. And he will be at the safest place there is in the battle."
"At his side, he means," Marcus added, grinning. "He tells me a chieftain is never without his shieldbearer."
Esca laughed. "Yes, that is true. So, you see, I will keep him close by."
"Good fortune to both of you." Unexpectedly, she enfolded Esca in her arms, before embracing Marcus, one last time.
"And the same to you," Marcus returned.
It was time.
They mounted up, Marcus beside Esca, turning away from the farm, away from Clusium, away from Etruria. They would go south to the army. To Rome. To victory. To their future together.